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CLASSICAL  August 2000

CLASSICAL August 2000

Subject:

Novak on Chandos

From:

John Smyth <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Sun, 6 Aug 2000 00:42:02 -0700

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Vitezslav Novak
"Lady Godiva" Op. 41 (for large orchestra)
"Toman and the Wood Nymph" Op. 40 (for an even bigger orchestra)
"De Profundis" Op. 76 (for an orchestra so big, you'll need a bigger house)
BBC Philharmonic/Libor Pesek
Chandos 9821

Summary from the busy non-executive: Czech please!

Though my friends, (after a series of short-lived, unfulfilling
relationships involving Tcherepnin, Schmidt and Korngold among others),
tell me over and over again that there's more to a composer than his big
orchestra, I continue to ignore them--this time grabbing Chandos' new
release of three Novak delights.

Novak can be described overall as a heady, post-romantic Dvorak.  I
posted awhile back about how much I enjoyed Novak's music on a Virgin CD
which contained the "Slovak Suite," "In the Tatra Mountains," and "Eternal
Longing." (With titles like these, who needs the music!) He is a capable
and imaginative melodist and orchestrator who, in the tradition of Wagner,
Debussy, Strauss, Janacek and Schreker, avoids formal repetition and
prefers to spin a musical narrative that constantly evolves and transforms
itself.

The most obvious comparison to Novak would be Suk.  Novak and Suk were
life-long friends and share the most similar musical aesthetic but I find
the music of Novak preferable because, (a little stylistic unevenness and
excessiveness aside), his melodies are often more engaging, and his
orchestrations more evocative than that of Suk's.

The "Lady Godiva Overture" is a lovely piece, and the Lady's theme, first
introduced on clarinet, is at once playful, fresh and innocent, and yet,
(as only the East Europeans seem to be able to do it), sensual, sad and
alluring at the same time.  If you like the freshness and naivete of
Janacek's "Vixen," Novak's Overture is just a little more to the right.
Haunting and beautiful.

Of the three pieces on this CD, "Toman and the Wood Nymph" (1907) is
IMHO the near hit.  It's interesting and imaginative in parts but uneven,
oscillating between the meat-and-potatoes sound of Dvorak and a darting,
modernish impressionism that reminds me of the rhythms, colors and
harmonies of Stravinsky's "Scherzo Fantastique"--ironically composed one
year *later* than Toman.  Novak, in the heat of inspiration simply outdoes
himself with the nymph music, and unfortunately the rest of the tone-poem
seems earth-bound in comparison.

"Die Profundis" reminds me of a famous meeting that never took place
between Novak and Shostakovich, where Shostakovich made the famous comment
to Novak that, "...the symphony must embrace the entire percussion
section...."

Composed in 1941, Profundis was written during the Nazi occupation of
the Czech nation and riskily premiered in Brno, whose population was half
German and half Czech.  The liner notes state that Novak "never disguised
his hatred of the occupying German forces...." and as you can imagine
Profundis, ("Out of the depths I have cried," Psalm 30), is hardly subtle.
A sinister march grows out the depths and slowly, (magisterially), evolves
into a double fugue which builds in intensity and agitation over the span
of 16 minutes.  One can hear faint echoes of Shostakovich and Mahler
throughout, but Novak never looses his own voice.  (Delightfully snarling
brass playing from the BBC.)

Out of all the bleakness, Novak finally allows the sun to peek through
the clouds.  The radiance of his coda, however, hardly suggests the kind
of gleam that would emanate from some proverbial challis of universal
brotherhood--it is more like the light that one would see reflected off
of an avenging sword.  And oh, what a big sword Novak symbolically waved
at the German forces--with full orchestra, brass fanfares, organ, piano,
celestas, harps, and a triple forte bass drum roll every 4th beat, it's
enough to make today's most ostentatious arranger of drum and bugle corp
music weep with envy.  (An excerpt of the finale is available at the
Chandos website.)

John Smyth

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