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.