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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Poetic Tone Pictures Op.85 (1889)
Elena Bashkirova (piano)
Rec. 2019 at Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin
CAVI-MUSIC 8553113 [60:50]

I will confess that I had dismissed the piano music of Dvořák in my teens after hearing a handful of pieces that inspired me not at all though I do not recall what they were or indeed if it was due to a dull performance. This early exposure was evidently enough to steer me away into other waters and as there is absolutely no shortage of rare piano music out there I never looked back. For some reason this release intrigued me enough to think “what am I missing”? Quite a lot as it turns out. This hour long collection, published by Simrock in 3 books, comprises 13 Tone Pictures, all with descriptive titles. There is no connecting thread that runs through the set although it appears that Dvořák intended them to be played as a whole saying “only thus can the listener form the right picture of that which I may have had in mind”. They were completed in the April/may of 1889 and thus appeared a little earlier than his orchestral tone pictures such as the symphonic poems The Noon Witch (1896) or A Hero's song (1897).

Elena Bashkirova, daughter and one-time student of pianist Dmitri Bashkirov, played the set in its entirety in concert and grew to love it before deciding to commit it to disc and I think it shows in her sensitivity to its kaleidoscopic moods, colours and textures. Kaleidoscopic they certainly are. Nocturnal way opens the set in tranquil mood. A dreamy chordal motif is stated, then decorated then given a more passionate setting that leads to a turbulent and urgent staccato that rises in the keyboard before falling in an ambigious chromatic descent. An even more delicate statement of the opening leads to a folk-like section that with flittering, trembling figures reaching high into the piano. Quick as a flash the mood changes back to the urgent staccato motif but it is the tender opening theme that has the final word. Tänderlei is translated as toying though I like dalliance as an alternative translation, both words admirably suiting this flirtatious badinage-come-scherzo. The lighthearted outer sections give way to a more serious central section though the dancing triplets display more eager nervousness than real concern. At the Old Castle is an atmospheric tableau with mournful undertones that are gradually usurped by the ghostly bells echoing from turret to turret. Spring song has echoes of Mendelssohn but it is the German's figurations that are echoed rather than his familiar Spring song; Dvořák's more harmonically complex setting has the vernal melody accompanied by an ever flowing cascade of notes.

Book two opens with Peasant Ballad, a curious piece. It contrasts dance elements with more declamatory, reflective bars. The dance is a mix of restrained figures in a minor key that are answered by brighter, more optimistic and energetic steps. Dvořák develops these elements until the opening theme breaks out in a great stomping waltz, brash and vigorous. Like many of these pieces the poetic nature is more in the descriptive texture, harmony and colour than any story-telling process; several, like this one, follow a loose A-B-A structure in which the opening music returns after a contrasting central episode so the feeling of a Ballad here is more a portrait of romanticised bucolic life than any particular narrative. Sorrowful reverie, the sixth piece, sets a tender melody over varied accompaniments and taking some interesting turns of harmony before ending in a positive, if gentle mood. Bashkirova is magical here in her delicacy of touch and the piece is bewitching in its restrained simplicity of feeling. A sudden change of mood brings us to the Furiant, the spirited dance form so familiar from the eighth of his Slavonic Dances or the Scherzo of his 6th symhony. This example is less ferocious, at least in this performance; Elena Bashkirova paints a beautiful portrait in the many lyrical sections, pointing details to perfection and finding a wonderfully judged balance of lyricism and gentle humour but I would have preferred she throw a little more caution to the wind in the virtuosic outer sections. Her humour extends to the fanciful Goblin's dance that follows, a much more amiable character than the malevolent creature conjured in Dvořák's tone poem The Water Goblin of 1896. The goblin's dance gives way to a song in the middle section which is touching and nostalgic. A Serenade follows, its simple melody accompanied by the hesitant plucking of guitar strings. The singer evidently gains in confidence, and repeats his song in a jaunty, lilting fashion. Emboldened he returns to his opening stanza but with more vigour and the work ends with a decisive chord.

The third book opens with a swirling Bacchanale, spirited (excuse the pun) and dazzling. Dvořák's portrayal of an enthusiastically skilled but inebriated performer is masterly; the characterisation continues in the middle section where our singer, oblivious of the festivities around him, lifts his voice in a song of his own. Was Dvořák inspired by Chopin's 3rd Scherzo? The chorale interspersed with cascades of notes from the upper reaches of the keyboard suggests so. Tittle-tattle is a capricious gem. The writing is puckish, delicate and animated – a marvellous depiction of a group of gossips exchanging their news and views on a wide range of subjects. In much more serious and sombre mood is At the Hero's grave, an elegiac funeral march that does not limit itself to the characteristic military formality, instead exploring a wide range of emotional textures that grow distinctly Lisztian in grandeur and style. The set closes with At the Holy Mountain which is based around a noble hymn-like series of chords answered by gently descending arpeggio figures. Dvořák captures the static and enduring nature of the mountain with a very slowly changing harmonic structure and the work ends in reflective tranquility.

Elena Bashkirova plays beautifully throughout this disc. If the virtuosity of the Furiant is a little more restrained than I would like I cannot fault her connection and obvious love of this music. Every picture, every shade, every character is shown to its best advantage and she has certainly convinced me of the real value of this music, its invention and humour, its melancholy and optimism.

Rob Challinor

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