by Walter Simmons
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.