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Vítĕzslav NOVÁK (1870-1949)
Pan – a tone poem for piano Op 43
Tobias Borsboom (piano)
Rec. May 2020, Westvest Church Schiedam, The Netherlands

There are two plaudits relating to this CD which I’m mentioning at the beginning, in case appearing in the midst of the text reduces their significance. First, the recording quality: it is a superb rendition of a grand piano placed in a spacious acoustic with a sonorous low-end, a rich middle and a pleasing ’ping’ to the top notes. A friend - a fellow MWI reviewer and pianist - said that it was as if the piano was situated in the middle of my room. Secondly, the efforts of the Piano Classics label (from the Brilliant Classics stable) in recording such out-of-the-way repertoire with first-class artists and an expert recording team.

Now to the music. Novák’s Pan was previously known to me only by way of a decent recording on Marco Polo (1990) of an orchestral piece of the same name. It transpires that the piano piece is the Op 43 original, composed in 1910, and the composer himself orchestrated it in 1912 as Op 43a. The piano version was considered to occupy the apex of his compositional career, along with the cantata The Tempest Op 42.

Novák doubtless had his own very apposite reasons for choosing the work’s title. Pan was the Ancient Greek God of pastoral fertility, represented as half goat, half man. Originally an Arcadian deity (paon = pasturer/shepherd), he was later associated with an all (pan) encompassing god, hence the term pantheistic. It may be this latter association that inspired Novák, because the music has the Sea as its third movement, and Woman as its last. The god Pan was not associated with the sea at all, and apart from having the power to make humans (and cattle) scatter in panic, I don’t see any notable relation to women. Incidentally, anyone who wants to read a short but notably chilling story, should read Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan, where a woman is very much associated with the god, in a very unpleasant way.

When I first listened to this CD, I soon became very much aware of the Impressionistic influence of Debussy, although to be fair to Novák, he later denied any Debussian influence whatsoever:
”Often people wrote about my impressionism as if it came from Debussy. But that is totally incorrect. I was already feeling things in an impressionistic way since Melancholie (songs for Voice and Orchestra 1901), so when Debussy had just started and was certainly not known in Prague”.
Surely, Richard Strauss is present in the mix; he was hugely influential in Prague following the premiere of Salomé in 1906, and his influence on Novák gained momentum from that point. However, it is not all about influence; one must admire the sheer compositional skill represented by this complex 55-minute structure that Novák built from a brief motif. His music from the period is characterised by a search for parallels between elements of nature and human inner passions, and so pace my earlier comments about the sea and woman, he expresses these parallels in Pan. This is very much the view of the pianist, Tobias Borsboom, who avers that the God Pan is the symbol of Novák’s essential pantheism, and of his close loving connection with nature.
The work opens with an eight-minute prologue in which the composer presents an introduction derived from the motif. It is followed by The Mountains and the The Sea; the latter works up to a virtuoso storm, splendidly brought off by the pianist. The fourth movement, The Forest, at 12’23” is the second longest section, and forms the Romantic heart of the work. Largely gentle, this is not a huge and gloomy growth, as represented in Sibelius’ Tapiola, but more a gentle verdant, sun spattered woodland. The last movement, Woman, is the longest at 17’30”, and I can only assume that Novák is trying to represent the multifaceted character of woman, first stormy and passionate, then gentle and loving, or gay and high-spirited. The boisterous opening alternates with a charming melody, leading to a tarantella – sensual and seductive, interrupted now and then by a yearning melody. The movement ends in a chaconne leading towards an ecstatic apotheosis – I am briefly reminded of Liszt’s Harmonies du Soir - which slowly fades away.

The booklet is entirely written by the award-winning Dutch pianist, Tobias Borsboom, and it has proved most helpful to me in the writing of this review. It discusses Novák’s life and career and the music in Pan and beyond.

The pianism is of a very high order, and as previously mentioned, the pianist is enormously aided by the superb recording.

Jim Westhead 

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