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Jakov GOTOVAC (1895-1982)
Symphonic Kolo, Op.12 (1926) [7:57]
Orači; the ploughmen, Op.18 (1937) [13:16]
Guslar the Fiddler, Op.22 (1940) [11:10]
Song and Kolo from Ero the Joker (1935) [9:00]
Song and Dance from the Balkans, Op.16 (1939) [11:28]
Marko TAJČEVIĆ (1900-1984)
Seven Balkan Dances (1930) [13:36]
NDR Radiophilharmonie/Moshe Atzmon
rec. 1999, North German Radio
CPO 999 724-2 [66:38]

You couldn’t really wish for spicier folkloricisms than those provided by the Croatian Jakov Gotovac. Though he lived until 1982, this disc concentrates on his inter-war compositions, one of the most successful of which was his opera Ero the Joker – also recently released by CPO in a full production – from which we have here the orchestral Song and Kolo. When Decca went to Zagreb in the 1950s, they recorded Baranović and Lhotka; it was a pity they didn’t add Gotovac to their roster.

Gotovac studied in Split and with Marx in Vienna but he learned much as a theatre and choral conductor in Zagreb. He was attuned to a kind of pan-Slavic element, one that courses throughout these generous examples of his art. Symphonic Kolo is probably his best-known orchestral piece; the kolo is a circle dance. With some deft comedic elements, its robust, exciting and vivid writing sounds a close cousin of Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances, though Gotovac doesn’t quote extant folk tunes, instead imbuing the music with authentic-seeming and vivacious rhythms and themes. A rather different work is Orači, or the Ploughmen, composed a decade later. The Mussorgskian trudge of the weary men lightens in time and the music is full of ripe characterisation and episodic interest. Wind themes are strong, textures are clear, harmonies full of late-Romanticism, the music belonging to the nationalistic element of things.

Written in 1940, Guslar the Fiddler is a symphonic portrait that characterises a blind singer who accompanies himself on the gusle as he sings epic poems. This has a necessarily loftier feel than the more clay-based folkloric wiring to be found elsewhere. Gotovac writes conspicuously well for horns and the way they and the fiddles answer each other’s lines imbues the music with an almost filmic luminosity at times. There’s also a marvellously vivid processional. This is a work you should hear.

Rich hued and full of driving energy, the Song and Kolo from Ero whets the appetite for the full opera whilst the Song and Dance from the Balkans offers a soft and yielding song, a romantic reverie, that contrasts with an elegant and droll dance.

The final work is not by Gotovac but by his near-contemporary Marko Tajčević, the sequence of Seven Balkan Dances written in 1930. This is a diatonic piece, varied in both seriousness and ethnicity, motored by a powerful folk rhythm. The Allegro ritmico, the fifth dance, is especially tangy but all the works in this disc reflect the desire to create a strong nationalistic musical profile in Croatia much as Janáček, Novák, Kodály and Bartók were doing elsewhere, albeit the Croatian composers were that much more straightforwardly dance-based.

The 20-year-old recording from North German Radio still sounds fine and captures the colour and drama of the music, to a very large extent due to the idiomatic conducting of Moshe Atzmon.

Jonathan Woolf

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