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.