NOVAK: Eternal Longing; In the Tatras; Moravian-Slovak Suite.

NOVAK: Eternal Longing; In the Tatras; Moravian-Slovak Suite. Karel Sejna conducting the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and the Brno State Philharmonic Orchestra. SUPRAPHON CRYSTAL — 11 0682-2 011 [ADD]; 65:00. Produced by Eduard Herzog and Jaroslav Krcek.

This CD reissue is an excellent introduction to the music of Vitezslav Novak (1870-1949), regarded during a portion of his lifetime as the Czechs’ foremost composer. The three compositions presented here were all written about the same time (1902-04), and were the very works that catapulted him to prominence. However, his period of ascendancy was short-lived: within a few years Janacek had surpassed him in international stature, and Novak was consigned to oblivion as a reactionary.

Novak had been a fellow-student and friend of Josef Suk in Dvorak’s composition classes. He was a highly self-critical individual, who felt that he fell short of Dvorak’s dictum that artistic personality was a composer’s most essential requirement, and his fear was probably justified. Novak may be seen as the height of Czech late-romanticism, blending the legacy of Dvorak with the ethos of Richard Strauss. The strongest thematic veins in his work are personal responses to phenomena of Nature and elements of folk melon, and both veins permeate the works presented here. In the Tatras memorializes Novak’s great love of the Tatra Mountains within the framework of a symphonic poem depicting a storm, including anticipation and aftermath. It is an example of Central-European late-romantic nature-painting — a sort of small-scale Alpensinfonie. Eternal Longing is a symphonic poem based on a tale of Hans Christian Andersen, full of heated passions and lush atmosphere. It is an appealing work to the sympathetic listener, but at exactly the same time, Arnold Schoenberg was composing Pelleas and Melisande and, as with In the Tatras, Novak’s music is somewhat dwarfed by the accomplishments of. a greater talent cultivating a similar aesthetic domain. Perhaps the Moravian-Slovak Suite suffers less by comparison with other music. Inspired by a region much loved by Novak, this is an expansive, affectionate, and luxuriant group of descriptive tone-paintings in a clearly post-Dvorak language, although its rich lyricism almost suggests Puccini in its evocation of spiritual feelings in the opening and closing sections.

Although Novak’s work was overshadowed by the greater accomplishments of some of his contemporaries, I have always found a stronger melodic profile and tighter dramatic sense in his music than in that of, say, his colleague Josef Suk. The performances here are excellent, effectively remastered from recordings originally made during the late 1960s. Listeners with an appetite for the limitless manifestations of the late-romantic spirit will find this a rewarding disc.

NOVÁK De Profundis. Lady Godiva. Toman and the Wood Nymph

NOVÁK De Profundis. Lady Godiva. Toman and the Wood Nymph Libor Peëek, cond; BBC Philharmonic  CHANDOS CHAN-9821 (66:22)

Vitezslav Novákwas, along with his friend and colleague Josef Suk (the elder), one of the leading Czech composers of the generation between Dvorak and Martinu. His place in history is not unlike that of his contemporary Alexander von Zemlinsky: a sophisticated craftsman, able to use the dominant musical language of the time with fluent skill and artistry, but lacking the distinctive individual voice and compelling thematic ideas that mark and elevate the work of his most gifted peers. Painfully aware of his creative limitations, Nov«k appears to have been something of a tortured fellow, and reportedly even contemplated suicide. He also seems to have nurtured some sort of obsessive fixation on the subject of womanhood, which he explored in a rather large number of his major works, most of which he wrote while in his thirties, during the first decade of the 20th century.

Two of these works appear on this recent Chandos release. Toman and the Wood Nymph is an ambitious tone poem of nearly half on hours duration, based on a Bohemian folktale involving a mans premonition of betrayal and abandonment by his lovera premonition that, once confirmed, destroys him. Influenced by the literature and philosophy of the great Swedish misogynist August Strindberg at least as much as by the music of Richard Strauss, the work is described by annotator Graham Melville-Mason as an erotic portrayal of the destructive power of woman. Completed in 1907, Toman and the Wood Nymph was first performed in Prague the following year. The audience at the premiere is said to have been stunned by its passionate intensity and by the musical means with which it was expressed. From the perspective of this listener, however, the work bustles around industriously and not without subtlety, its contrapuntal textures woven even more densely than those of Strauss, but without really igniting ones own passions. What is missing are striking, memorable melodic ideas that might lend focus to the works emotional conflicts and thematic inter-relationships. Even a composer as cerebral as Arnold Schoenberg was able to accomplish this in his Pelleas and Melisande, written three or four years earlier and truly a masterpiece of the genre. Another work that comes to mind is Scriabin’s much-maligned Divine Poem, written one year after Pelleas. Notwithstanding its ludicrous program and the leisurely indulgence of its formal design, it too is able to capture and maintain listener interest by the compelling appeal of its thematic ideas and both these works use a temporal canvas nearly twice the size of Novák’s!

Composed with astonishing rapidity the same year as Toman was Lady Godiva, a concert overture of considerable substance, intended to precede the presentation of a new Czech play on the subject of the extraordinary English heroine. Though fairly tuneful and dramatic, it retains a sense of moderation, avoiding the emotional extravagance and flamboyance to which the genre is susceptible. One might point to a work such as Elgar’s Cockaigne Overture as comparable in style and scope, if not in subject matter. Such a comparison helps to pinpoint the elusive qualities that distinguish a composer of the second rank from one of the first rank.

However, the work that first attracted my attention to Novák, and continues to hold my interest, is his remarkable symphonic poem De Profundis. Past the age of seventy, Novak composed the piece during the Nazi occupation, later indicating in the score its [consecration] to the suffering of the Czech nation during the German reign of terror, 1939-1945. Here, despite his advanced age, the composer managed to generate the sense of urgency and intensity missing from so many of the works held as central to his output. Scored for large orchestra (including organ), the piece identifies itself with the 130th Psalm (Out of the depths have I cried, O Lord, …). Its form is unusual and intriguing: a lugubrious introduction gradually coalesces into a grimly militant theme, which is developed quite elaborately in a double-fugue whose momentum builds relentlessly to an intense climax; eventually, the mood of determination is transformed into one of hope, as the organ leads the orchestra to an ecstatic apotheosis whose depth of sincerity is quite profound.

Both De Profundis and Lady Godiva were included on an Ultraphon CD reissue of performances from the 1960s led by Jaroslav Vogel. The performance of the former work in particular was quite poor, leaving much of its impact to the listeners imagination. The reading offered here, led by Libor Pesek, a Czech conductor with a strong English presence, makes a convincing case for the work, while presenting the other two in the most advantageous light. Vitezslav Novák may not be a figure of the first rank, but admirers of the post-romantic style are well advised not to dismiss him without considering De Profundis

NOVÁK: Pan (Tone Poem). Songs of a Winter Night

NOVÁK  Pan (Tone Poem).  Songs of a Winter Night · Margaret Fingerhut (pn) · CHANDOS CHAN-9489 (73:17)

Vítezslav Novák (1870-1949) was, along with Josef Suk, the leading Czech composer of the early 20th century, until Janácek achieved a greater prominence than either of them.  In previous reviews (Fanfare 17:1, pp. 228-9;  18:6, pp. 264-5) I have described Novák’s music as “somewhat dwarfed by the accomplishments of greater talents cultivating similar aesthetic domains,” noting that his works “offer the hedonistic pleasures typical of the period, rendered with sophisticated craftsmanship, but without the high-profile personality that distinguishes the finest, most memorable music of this kind.  Evidently, Novák was highly self-critical, and suffered with the fear that he lacked the strong personality that Dvorák (his teacher) had insisted was the sine qua non of a major creative figure.  Unfortunately, much of Novák’s music suggests that his fear was justified.  This CD continues to fill out the picture . . . “ And so does this one, I’m afraid.

Novák composed his vast tone poem Pan as a piano solo in 1910, when his popularity was at its height, right after completing his other major work, the cantata The Storm.  He intended Pan as a very personal statement — something along the lines of an aesthetic autobiography — in five sections, entitled “Prologue,” “Mountains, “ “The Sea,” “The Forest,” and “Woman,” unified by a single motif symbolizing the Greek nature god.  A work like this would seem to cry out for orchestration and, indeed, Novák produced such an alternative version two years later.  The orchestral version is available on Marco Polo 8.223325, in a performance by the Slovak Philharmonic under the direction of Zdenek Bílek.  Reviewing that release (Fanfare 15:1, p. 308), James North commented that he couldn’t imagine the work played by piano alone, and, listening only to the sumptuous, richly fragrant orchestration, one can readily understand such a reaction.  However, the piano version is surprisingly effective, at least as performed here by the English pianist Margaret Fingerhut, who brings an extraordinary sense of authority, technical mastery, and wealth of expressive variety to her reading.  As one might expect from its date and place of composition, Pan, which lasts just under an hour, combines a post-Wagnerian use of leitmotifs with an opulent, tonally ambiguous harmonic language enriched by expanded chordal structures reminiscent of Debussy in a densely woven polyphonic texture.  Interestingly, the influence of Debussy is much more apparent in the piano version, as the weight of the orchestration seems to direct one’s attention more toward Germanic models.  The work has many appealing passages and, as I have noted in previous Novák reviews, listeners who relish high-cholesterol music of this kind — e.g. Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande, Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy, Strauss’s Alpine Symphony, Delius’s Song of the High Hills, Loeffler’s Pagan Poem–will find this work a feast.  However, those less sympathetic to the genre are likely to find listening to Pan to be like trudging through a swamp, as they may wish for more arresting thematic content, a sense of expressive urgency, and the dominating presence of a distinctive personality, all of which characterize the best works of this kind.  The question of orchestral versus piano version is difficult, however.  As the list above suggests, this is an orchestral genre, and the picturesque color and richness of texture offered by that medium are indispensable.  On the other hand, the piano version better articulates the textural and harmonic structure, providing greater subtlety and clarifying details that are buried in the dense orchestral fabric.  Simply put, Fingerhut’s performance is an impressive achievement, making a strong case for a work of secondary importance and marginal quality.  From a musical standpoint, it is a better performance than the Bílek/Slovak reading of the orchestral version.

Considerably less interesting than Pan are the Songs of a Winter Night, composed in 1902-3.  This group of four pieces might be described as somewhat more ambitious than salon music, with a vaguely Bohemian accent, not unlike the piano music of Korngold.

NOVAK: Lady Godiva. South Bohemian Suite. De Profundis

NOVAK: Lady Godiva. South Bohemian Suite. De Profundis Jaroslav Vogel conducting the Brno State Philharmonic Orchestra ULTRAPHON 11 1873-2 011 [AAD]; 69:41. Produced by Ladislav Sip

Along with his friend and colleague Josef Suk, Vitezslav Novak (1870-1949) was the leading Czech late-romantic composer. He enjoyed considerable prominence during the first decade of this century and his best known works date from that period. Compact discs featuring some of those works have been reviewed by James North (Fanfare 15:1, p. 308) and by me (Fanfare 17:1, pp. 228-9). North and I appear to be in essential agreement that these pieces offer the hedonistic pleasures typical of the period, rendered with sophisticated craftsmanship, but without the high-profile personality that distinguishes the finest, most, memorable music of this kind. Evidently, Novak was highly self-critical, and suffered with the fear that he lacked the strong personality that Dvorak (his teacher) had insisted was the sine qua non of a major creative figure. Unfortunately, much of Novak’s music suggests that his fear was justified. This CD continues to fill out the picture, reissuing material recorded for Supraphon during the early 1960s, conducted by Jarosiav Vogel, who had been a student of Novak.

Lady Godiva is a 16-minute concert overture dating from 1907, and makes much the same impression as the works described in the reviews just cited. It is substantial music constructed with skill as well as a sense of style. Though tuneful and dramatic, it retains a sense of moderation, avoiding the emotional extravagance and flamboyance to which the genre is susceptible. One might point to a work such as Elgar’s Cockaigne Overture as comparable in style and scope, if not in subject matter. Such a comparison helps to pinpoint the elusive qualities that distinguish a composer of the second rank from one of the first rank.

Despite its title, South Bohemian Suite, composed in 1937, is not at all the sort of folk rhapsody one might expect — even less so, in fact, than the earlier Moravian-Slovak Suite. Half an hour in duration, it consists of three expansive tone-poem-like movements followed by a brief epilogue in the form of a national hymn. Throughout the first two movements, any traces of the avowed nationalist basis of inspiration are absorbed within the almost Delius-like rich, luxuriant textures and impressionistic harmony. Again, one misses the sparks of melodic-harmonic ingenuity that characterize the most memorable examples of the genre. The third section is starker in character–a driving march whose relentless forward thrust is bit obvious and protracted.

The piece that is really intriguing on this disc is De Profundis, a symphonic poem composed in 1941 during the Nazi occupation, when Novak was 71. Inspired by Psalm 130, it is scored for large orchestra (including organ) and appears to be constructed along the lines of a massive fugue. A slow, somber opening figure is subjected to elaborate contrapuntal development, gradually building in momentum to a grim climax of considerable intensity. As this subsides, the material is transfigured into a warm hymn, hopeful in tone, that culminates in an ecstatic apotheosis. This is the most impressive work of Novak with which I am familiar, strong in character, and much more deeply probing than the other pieces I have heard. I am sure it would make a stunning impact in a good performance, but, unfortunately, that is not what we are offered here. Although the performances of the other two works are quite satisfactory, De Profundis (recorded two years later than the others) suffers from some surprisingly ragged ensemble playing. As I mentioned recently in another review, a programming idea that Marco Polo or a similar company ought to consider is a disc featuring Novak’s De Profundis, Lili Boulanger’s choral/orchestral setting ofPsalm 130 and Vittorio Giannini’s rhapsody for cello or double-bass orchestra, also entitled Psalm 130: three composers from different musical cultures represented at their best in works all based on the same spiritual concept. You heard it here.