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Ksenia Kouzmenko (piano)
Vánoce - Christmas in Czech Piano Music

Josef SUK (1874-1935)
Christmas Eve (1923) [2:19]
A Child’s Christmas Dream, Op.33 No.5 (1912) [3:01]
Jaroslav KVAPIL (1892-1958)
Vánoce (Christmas) (1924) [16:52]
Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
Christmas (1927) [5:42]
Vitězslav NOVÁK (1870-1949)
Songs on Winter Nights, Op.30 (1902-03) [17:30]
Sonatina (Christmas), Op.54 No.6 (1920) [9:59]
Jaroslav KŘIČKA (1882-1969)
Intimate Pieces, Op.17 (1910-11) [11:27]
Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
Christ the Lord is Born (1924) [0:45]
rec. July 2020, Westvest90, Schiedam, Netherlands
COBRA RECORDS 0079 [67:47]

My earlier encounter with Ksenia Kouzmenko came in her album Fenętre sur le jardin (see review) and there are four composers common to both discs; Suk, Kvapil, Martinů and Janáček, albeit the last name is represented in this latest disc by a tiny example of his art, 45 seconds long. The year before that I listened to her performing cello works with Lucie Štěpánová (see review) so she has covered plenty of Czech repertoire for Cobra.

The thematic theme is Christmas in Czech piano music and the disc arrived in timely fashion for me to review it before the festive season began in earnest. She proves a fine guide to the repertoire and has a knack for unearthing seldom recorded – or never recorded – items to enliven listening still further. The Suk brace fall in the overlooked category. They have certainly been recorded but most pianists favour recording one or more of the larger sets – Opp 7, 10, 12 and 28. These two little pieces, tuneful, rich in bell chimes – the second example is more impressionistic and dappled-verdant – open the disc with a sense of delicious rapture.

The two previously unrecorded works are Jaroslav Kvapil’s 1924 set called Vánoce, or Christmas, and Jaroslav Křička’s Intimate Pieces of 1910-11. Kvapil was a prominent student of Janáček and his four-movement suite is more harmonically rich than the deliberately simpler pleasures extended by Suk. Kvapil removed the movements’ superscriptions, preferring general tempo directions, but one can still intuit snow flurries that gradually relent, church chimes, the calming allure of a Lullaby and the noble exuberance of the finale’s resounding bell peals. Křička was a student of Novák and his four pieces are richly coloured examples of his art, tinged with melancholy, full of expressive breadth or refined tenderness, and ending with a Waltz that confounds expectations by looking in on itself. Bravo to Ksenia Kouzmenko for disinterring these two valuable sets.

Martinů had his own Christmas settings. Geniality (‘Sledge’) and drollery (‘Christmas Carol’ which sounds a bit distractingly similar to The Camptown Races) surround a lullaby not altogether unlike that of Kvapil’s in spirit.

There are two works by Křička’s teacher, Novák. Songs on Winter Nights, Op.30 dates from 1903. She brings ardour to the four songs, shows refinement in the Christmas Night panel as she delves into its nocturnal qualities whilst honouring its light-hearted B section. And she brings virtuoso flourish to the Carnival Night section, though has here to cede to the composer’s pupil František Rauch, who is not only faster and less aggressive but who characterises here and, frankly, elsewhere with greater surety. Still, she shares tempo decision-making, by and large, with Radoslav Kvapil, now on Alto, and takes a more sensible tempo for the final movement than Martin Vojtíšek on Panton who takes it at an unseemly Molto Allegro rather than the Allegro burlesco, rubato that it is.

Kouzmenko also plays the sixth and final Sonatina called Christmas that forms part of Novák’s Op.54 cycle. It’s in two movements, a Pastorale and the Advent Matins Chant from the Time of Hus. Were it not for Rauch this might be thought a splendid realisation and in many ways it is but Rauch has the knack of exploring Novák’s narrative with gravity and tonal sophistication that allows the music to unfold with greater directness and beauty. There’s no shame in not matching the playing of so distinguished a musician as he. Janáček’s Christ the Lord is Born (1924) ends the recital with affirmation and affection.

If it’s a Czech Christmas-themed recital that you are after, one that balances established pieces in the Czech repertoire, albeit ones somewhat on the fringe, with valuable premiere recordings of music from the first decade of the Czechoslovakian republic, you should know that this Dutch label provides fine sound and good notes and that their Czech music specialist is on notably fine form.

Jonathan Woolf

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