In the league of Czech composers, Novak, if known at all, is definitely ranked
in the third division. Is this fair? While everything that Dvorak wrote is
legitimate for recording the best of Fibich and Novak is still seen as unusual
and risky for concerts and disc. Fibich has made something of a come-back
with Neeme Jarvi's Detroit SO recordings on Chandos. Novak still has some
headway to make up.
So what is Novak's music like? He is a late romantic paralleling Szymanowski,
Atterberg, Karlowicz, Bax and de Boeck. What we know of the music is largely
down to Supraphon. Their Karel Sejna-conducted recordings of the two tone
poems About the Eternal Longing and In the Tatras were long
a staple of the LP catalogue. The Sejnas and the earlier (1960) Bohumil Gregor
recordings remain in the Supraphon catalogue and are definitely well worth
The suite dates from 1937 but its idiom is locked into the flourishing crop
of impressionistic/Dvorakian works written during the 1900s. The first movement
blends Delian luxuriance with Dvorak's naive romantic and sprightly nationalism.
It ends in exalted magic floated on high violins at the top of their register.
The second movement is of a similar atmosphere - gently rounded themes conjure
up a woodland in summer and Delius seems not far away. The third movement
(Hussite March) is turbulent and shadowy rising to a dread march of doomed
heroes. The harp swirls, the side-drum hammers with militaristic remorselessness
and brass call out. This is a most ambiguous movement superficially triumphant
but who has won? It has a very satisfying emotional symmetry.
The extremely brief Epilogue: To My Homeland is positive but seems
oddly out of place alongside the powerful, albeit negative, 'punch' of the
The suite represents relaxed picture painting, like Bax's Spring Fire,
though the intensity of inspiration in the first two movements burns a micron
or two lower with Novak. It can more closely be compared with Bantock's
Hebridean Symphony of nine years later. The titles of the movements
suggest an inconsistent line of inspiration with movements 1 and 2 being
rural and woodland idylls. The other two movements are patriotic in their
origin; the sort of inspiration you might expect from Smetana or Dvorak.
At the end of the disc I was left thinking that Novak was a Czech counterpart
for Bantock (Sappho Fragments), Schoeck (Elegie), Szymanowski
(Songs of the Infatuated Muezzin), Zemlinsky, Mahler, Delius or Bax.
These range from the glistening Stars in the Water  to the deep
plangent sea-currents of Waldnacht  which ends in elfin bells and
dances. The Notturno  is followed by the fourth song which has
a comforting and memorable tune. The sixth song is Night Journey -
full of dark and disruptive currents and the dreamy atmosphere of some Bohemian
nightride and sunrise. Christchild's Lullaby has the innocent wonder
of Canteloube's Songs of Auvergne. This is the kind of song which
would have a popular success if only it were featured on Classic FM or was
taken up at an international singing competition. Utterly treasurable.
Strakova creamily floats the long vocal lines with the an engaged and engaging
sense of joyous discovery.
Strakova's lovely voice is comparable with that of Heather Harper (in another
register) but the recording balance not ideal and when she sings quietly
she can be over-run by the orchestra. Notes are only in English by Mogens
Wenzel Andreasen. Regrettably none of the song texts are provided. The photograph
of Novak which adorns the booklet cover and the insert main text has been
textured in a way which does not enhance the clarity of the portrait. I wish
this design feature had not been used.
Douglas Bostock assures me that there are other Novak orchestral song cycles
to come. I hope to hear them soon. This one is extremely impressive. It is
rumoured that another Bostock Novak song CD is to be released soon. I look
forward to hearing it.
This disc is very well worth getting and is too easily lost in the welter
of 'big name' releases. The orchestra is in excellent heart.
The enterprise of ClassicO is to be congratulated. Do get this disc, made
a compulsive purchase by the song cycle.
I hope that the same forces will soon tackle the other song cycles and the
1941 St Wenceslas Triptych plus the unrecorded May Symphony (1943, curiously
dedicated to Marshal Stalin). The symphony, Triptych and De Profundis are
all orchestral works dating from the early 1940s and Czechoslovakia's occupation
by the Nazis.