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