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Vitězslav NOVÁK (1870-1949)
Orchestral Works - Volume 1
South Bohemian Suite Op 64 (1936-7) [29.23]
Toman and the Wood Nymph (1906-7) [26.45]
Moravian Philharmonic orchestra/Marek Štilec
rec. 29-31 October 2019, Reduta Hall, Olomouc, Czech Republic
NAXOS 8.574226 [56.11]

If you lift up the CD from its interior hinge, the picture underneath is of the cover of an earlier recording of Novák’s orchestral works by the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra under JoAnn Falletta, (Naxos 8.573683); nevertheless, one must assume that this new disc is the first volume in a new series to be recorded by Moravian Philharmonic - a suitably excellent plan.

The South Bohemian Suite begins the trail and how apt it is, I feel, for me to be listening to this music as we approach the 150th Anniversary of Novák’s birth on 5th December. In fact, this was the first work of his that I got to know when I purchased a rather poor quality LP in what was still communist Prague in 1980 (I’m sorry I can’t recall the performers, as I gave the record away). I’m not sure. Though. if this piece represents the best of the composer, as it was his attempt to revert to the nationalism of the pre-First World War years, which produced some of his first, better-known compositions like the ‘Slovak Suite’ and ‘In the Tatra Mountains’. Even so, it is pleasingly attractive and inventive.

The first two of the four movements have a distinctly pastoral outlook. The first, which is the longest, translates as ‘Pastoral Horizons’ and includes a lovely falling melodic phrase, which acts as a leitmotif haunting the other movements often in disguised forms. The second, equally delicate, is ‘Reverie, Forests and Ponds’. The third is a contrast, ‘March of the Hussites’ and grows louder as the soldiers pass, with repeated rhythms. The fourth is a brief coda re-iterating the opening moods and leitmotif. Another recording worth mentioning is by the Carlsbad Symphony Orchestra under Douglas Bostock (alto 1199). They take longer over the details and atmosphere of each section and I feel that they capture the March with more excitement, but this new version is better recorded and consequently has more clarity.

Toman and the Wood Nymph is really a symphonic poem based on a Czech folk tale. In his younger days, Novák had taken a keen interest in folk melodies and tales especially when visiting the Moravian district of Valenchia, and many of his works are much influenced by what he heard and notated at the time - for example, as in the ‘Valachian Dances’ for solo piano Op 34. The story of this orchestral work is simple. The score is described as being ‘…after a Bohemian legend’ and the composer sums up the plot as follows: ‘impelled by a strange restlessness, Toman decided to visit his lover on Midsummer Eve. He was not mistaken; she had forsaken him for another. He went off to the forest and died in the arms of a woodland fairy”. The music develops out of a Moravian folk melody into a passionate, full-bloodied Romantic, almost Straussian world, touching on the erotic; it seems that Novák even described it as ‘a sonic orgy’. It is certainly luxuriously scored, and I must add that the more I hear of Novak the more I am astonished by his personal style of orchestration.

The work has been recorded by other orchestras over the years but this version is the one for me. The flavour and mood are conveyed with depth of understanding and orchestral clarity. The ending comes off particularly well and the recording is spacious. With a score like this, it is important to hear the composer’s intentions in detail. In addition, the booklet notes by Richard Whitehouse are the usual mixture of the useful and the relevant with not word wasted.

There is a caveat however. One does feel a little cheated nowadays if a disc comes in at less than an hour of music, and with so much Novák out there, some of it rather overlooked, it a pity that a space could not have been found for another piece. However, it’s best to look forward to the other volumes in the not-too-distant future.

Gary Higginson

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