SMETANA Piano Trio in g, op. 15. SUK Piano Trio in c, op. 2. Elegy, op. 23. NOVÁK Trio in d, op. 27, ''Quasi una balata''. Smetana Trio· SUPRAPHON SU 3810 (63:42)
Of course, old ensemble names are no guarantee of quality. The justly renowned XYZ Ensemble may have possessed a phenomenal pedigree, featuring some of the most prestigious musicians in Blefescu who stayed with it for 40 years, but none of the original XYZ members have been with the group for quite some time; and despite what publicity agents would have you believe, their laurels were not magically transferred to the new occupants of the same apartment building. That's not the way things work. Even the most gradual and careful of transitions between veteran musicians can hardly guarantee a continuity of approach. When a completely new generation takes over, the changes are usually great and often disappointing.
The current lineup to the Smetana Trio is definitely not the one that began it. As it turns out, that's a good thing; since the group played their first concerts in 1930, it's unlikely they'd have much to offer technically if still alive and performing together today. It's leader and founder was pianist Josef Pálenicek, probably best known these days for his early championing of Martinu and Janácek. (Mono and stereo recordings of his dotted the LP catalogs on a host of labels at one time, from prestigious Supraphon to budget Artia and Parliament.) When Páleniícek died, his son, cellist Jan, assumed leadership of the Smetana Trio. Or perhaps he restarted it; the liner notes are silent upon such matters. They also fail to mention that the group's violin chair has changed repeatedly since then--in 2001, when Hanna Kotkova took over from Gabriela Demeterov, and finally in 2003, when Jana Nováková came into the fold.
Although some of their countrymen have preserved the name but not the spirit of once celebrated ensembles, the Smetana Trio members demonstrate both the technical expertise of their namesake and that almost telepathic knowledge of each other's interpretative choices that makes chamber music in good hands sound like one musician on multiple instruments. The Smetana piece is an excellent test for such a group, especially when played with the frequent and emotionally driven rubato that the Smetana players bring to it. On the one hand, they display a complete agreement of approach in unison passages, but they also revel in the give and take that marks a true ensemble in performance.
To some listeners, the Smetanas may sound too intense. Their playing crackles with energy. They have no fear of very fast tempos, as the finale of Smetana's Trio demonstrates. They also possess a tendency to ramp up slow ones a notch; so that the andante of Suk's slow movement is shaded upwards to a moderato, while the opening of Novák's Trio barely starts at an appropriate andante tragico before the Smetanas impetuously propel it forward on the springboard of several emotionally violent rubato passages. This last is the key: even when the tempo is relatively relaxed, the Smetana musicians are applying so much of an interpretative slant to the works in question that they invariably seem edgy, in a ''poised for action'' manner. I have no problem with this vantage point as one alternative among many, but understand where other listeners might reasonably prefer a less passionately involved perspective--or at least, one that unwinds from time to time. On the basis of this recording, the Smetana Trio has yet to achieve that, or see it as desirable.
The sound quality is up to Supraphon's best, meaning warm, carefully balanced, and forward enough to make the music come alive. Not that the Smetanas have any trouble in doing that on their own. If you enjoy this supercharged, richly Romantic music (and I do), likely you'll relish the Smetana Trio's performances, as well. I hope we'll hear far more from them in the future.
(b Nová ?íše na Morav?, 8 April 1921; d New-Ulm, 17 Nov 1984). Czech composer. His musical talent was evident from childhood in his abilities in violin and piano studies, and later in his attempts at composition during his school years. After completing a classical education in Brno, he entered the Brno Conservatory in 1940 and joined Petrželka’s composition class, having previously taken a brief course with Theodor Schaefer. Forced to interrupt his conservatory studies for two and a half years during the Nazi occupation, Novák completed his course only in 1946, submitting a string quartet and the Tane?ní suita (‘Dance Suite’) for orchestra. He then studied briefly with Bo?kovec at the Prague Academy (AMU) and in 1947 left for the USA on a study trip financed by a Ježek Foundation scholarship that he won for his Serenade for small orchestra. He completed a summer course with Copland in Tanglewood and for five months studied with Martin? in New York. On 25 February 1948, the date of the communist takeover in former Czechoslovakia, Novák returned home and settled in Brno, where he would earn his living from composition. In 1963 he was one of the founders of ‘To?r?í skupina A’ (Creative Group A) or ‘Parasiti Apollonis’, which brought together Brno theoreticians and composers united by a common view of the role of contemporary music and an interest in new compositional techniques. His liberal views and uncompromising attitude, however, brought him into conflict with the communist authorities; he was discriminated against in a number of ways and in 1961 he was expelled from the Union of Czechoslovak Composers. It was partly this that made him leave Czechoslovakia after the Soviet invasion of 1968. With his family he lived in exile in Denmark, in Italy (1970–77) and finally in the Federal German Republic. He is buried in Rovereto, Italy.
Even Novák’s student compositions display an acute musicianship which, when disciplined by a growing technical mastery, placed him among the most talented representatives of the young postwar generation. His early works received concert and broadcast performances. The Dance Suite contains a number of characteristic traits: clear construction, transparent orchestration and a feeling for clearcut rhythms. These elements were strengthened still more by his studies with Martin?, with whom Novák formed a close personal and artistic friendship. The late 1940s and the early 50s saw the composition of a number of chamber and piano works which Novák later suppressed. One exception was his song cycle Carmina sulamitis (1947) on the Latin text of the Song of Songs, which also demonstrates his exceptional sensitivity to the voice. His aim, fully realized in this cycle, was to create a vocal style which would be clearly intelligible, unsentimental in quality, but also eminently singable. The alternation of long melismas, supported by the pulsing rhythms of the orchestra, with declamatory passages allows the singer to show off all aspects of her voice.
In this early phase, this successful song cycle remained however an isolated experiment. Novák concentrated on chamber pieces and concertos, among which the first representative work is the Oboe Concerto (1952), a composition of neo-classical formal clarity which exploits the virtuoso possibilities of the solo instrument. These elements can be seen as a legacy from Czech music of the 17th and 18th centuries. The work’s sense of humour, its musical wit and playfulness, reflect Novák’s basically optimistic character. The Oboe Concerto was followed by the Concerto for two pianos and orchestra (1955). At its first performance the composer played in the duo part with his wife Eliška, a graduate of the Brno Conservatory; the Nováks often appeared in piano duet recitals. The enthusiastic reception of the concerto by the Brno audience was in sharp contrast to official reaction, which branded Novák’s style as foreign to the spirit of Czech music. With uncompromising obstinacy Novák in the early 1950s defended his right to his own, modern-orientated path. His music upset the arbiters of the dogmatic, aesthetic norms; his wit and humour were often taken as ridicule, cynicism and deliberate provocation.
Novák’s talent was established beyond dispute by his composition for nonet, entitled Baletti à 9, in which he again demonstrated his sense for rhythm and for timbre combinations, timbre being treated as an essential element of the music. The composition, which brought a new dimension and a folklike tunefulness to what were essentially dance forms, preserved, like all Novák’s works of the period, a basically tonal character.
With the ballet Svatební košile (‘The Spectre’s Bride’), composed in 1954 on the subject of the ballad by Karel Jaromír Erben, Novák came into contact with the theatre for the first time. Nevertheless, the ballet demonstrated a sophisticated dramatic flair, and it was followed by incidental music for many plays and films. The climax of this activity came in 1965 with the Brno première of Komedie o umu?ení a slavném vzk?íšení Pána a spasitele našeho Ježíše Krista (‘Play of the Passion and Glorious Resurrection of the Lord Our Saviour Jesus Christ’), in which Jan Kopecký’s adaptation of the folk Passion play was in close sympathy with Novák’s musical conception of the subject.
Novák’s first creative period, characterized by Martin?’s obvious influence, began with his piano Variace na téma Bohuslava Martin? (1949) and closed with the orchestral version of ten years later. These seven variations and double fugue on an 11-bar theme from the closing section of Martin?’s Field Mass are proof of the technical mastery of form and instrumentation that Novák had achieved by this time: he had proved himself a composer of rich invention with a wide range of expression.
A new creative period began with the Capriccio for cello and orchestra (1958), a virtuoso concerto work making striking use of jazz elements. In the middle movement, ‘Circulus vicioso’, he first employed a 12-note series as thematic material. He also used 12-note techniques in the lyrical Dulces cantilenae (1961), in which he returned for his text to the Song of Songs, this time in a different Latin version by the Czech humanist Campanus Vod?anský. The use of dodecaphony did not however mean a basic change of attitude towards form. As is shown by the composer’s gently ironic introduction to these songs and to the following work, Passer Catulli (1962), he saw these compositional techniques as a musical game.
During the 1960s the strength of tonality in Novák’s work gradually diminished. Most of Novák’s works from this period are settings of the composer’s own Latin texts, the Latin of medieval codices or classical Latin. The rhythm of the Latin hexameter became an ostinato motif in the large-scale oratorio Dido (1967) for mezzo, speaker, male choir and orchestra. This three-part work brought together Novák’s dramatic flair, his individual vocal style and his predilection for the Latin language. Other scores using unusual Latin texts include Apicius modulatus (1971), a humorous piece based on the cookbook by Apicius, and the opera Dulcitius (1974), based on a miracle play by Roswitha von Gandersheim. For his basic rhythmic material Novák drew increasingly on the verses of Virgil during this final period. An analytical study of Latin texts, their metres, lengths of syllables and the intonation of correctly declaimed Latin informed the rhythm of his music and its melodic outline also, particularly in works such as Odarum contentus (1973). Through this most universal of languages Novák succeeded in creating a highly individual musical expression.
Svatební košile [The Spectre’s Bride] (ballet, after K.J. Erben), 1954; Komedie o umu?ení a slavném vzk?íšení Pána a spasitele našeho Ježíše Krista [Play of the Passion and Glorious Resurrection of the Lord Our Saviour Jesus Christ] (incid music, J. Kopecký), 1965; Dulcitius (lyric op, 14 scenes, after R. von Gandersheim), 1974; Aesopia (6 sung and danced fables, after Phaedrus), chorus, small orch 1981, rev. for ballet; film scores and other incid music
Carmina sulamitis (Song of Songs), Mez, orch, 1947; Cantilenae trium vocum (V. Nezval), 1951; Závišova píse? [Záviš’s Song], T, orch, 1958; Horatii carmina, 1v, pf, 1959; Dulces cantilenae (Song of Songs), S, vc, 1961; Passer Catulli, B, 9 insts, 1962; Ioci vernales (Carmina burana), B, 8 insts, tape, 1964; Sulpicia (Tibullus), chorus, 1965; Testamentum Iosephi Eberle, chorus, 4 hn, 1966; Dido (Virgil), Mez, spkr, male chorus, orch, 1967
Exertitia mythologica (Novák), chbr chorus, 1968; Catulli Lesbia, male chorus, 1968; Ignis pro Ioanne Palach (Novák), chorus, orch, 1969; Planctus troadum (Seneca), A, female chorus, 8 vc, 2 db, 2 perc, 1969; Mimus magicus (Virgil), S, cl, pf, 1969; Rana rupta (Phaedrus), chorus, 1971; Apicius modulatus, S, T, gui, 1971; Invitatio pastorum (Carmina burana), solo vv, chorus, 1971; Orpheus et Eurydice (Virgil), S, b viol, pf, 1972; Florilegum cantionum latinarum, 1v, pf, 1972–3; Schola cantans, 1v, pf, 1973; Columbae pacis et aliud pecus (Novák), high v, pf, 1972; iv Fugae Vergilianae, chorus, 1974; Servato pede et pollicis ictu (Horatius), chorus, 1974; Eis Aphroditen (anthem, Pseudohomerus), chorus, 1980; Vernalis temporis symphonia, solo vv, chorus, orch, 1982; In tumulum Paridis (Martialis), chorus, 1983; Cantica latina, 1v, pf, 1985
P. Blatný: ‘Baletti à 9 Jana Nováka’, HRo, ix (1956), 971–4
P. Blatný: ‘Koncert pro dva klavíry a orchestr Jana Nováka’, HRo, x (1957), 491–4
J. Trojan: ‘Tv?r?í profil Jana Nováka’ [Profile of Novák as a creative artist], HRo, xvii (1964), 822–5
J. Fuka?: ‘Jana Nováka pokus o slavné vzk?íšení hudebního divadla’ [Novák’s attempt at the glorious resurrection of music theatre], HRo, xix (1966), 16 only
A. Pi?os: ‘Návrat Jana Nováka’ [The Return of Novák], HRo, xliii (1990), 272–6
A. N?mcová: ‘Prohibited Czech Music: Jan Novák’, Music News from Prague (1991), nos.5–6, pp.2–5
A. N?mcová: ‘Jana Nováka cesta dom?’ [Novák’s way home], OM, xxiii (1991), 13–20
A. N?mcová: ‘Vít?zslava Kaprálová a Jan Novák: dva moravští žáci Bohuslava Martin?’ [Kaprálová and Novák: two Moravian pupils of Martin?], OM, xxiii (1991), 190–93
He learnt the piano, the violin and the organ from his father, Josef Suk (1827–1913), schoolmaster and choirmaster in the Bohemian village of K?e?ovice. In 1885 he entered the Prague Conservatory, where he studied the violin with Bennewitz, theory with Foerster, Knittl and Stecker, and from 1888 chamber music with Wihan. He began composing seriously in his third year at the conservatory and in 1891 graduated with his Piano Quartet op.1. He remained an extra year at the conservatory for special tuition in chamber music with Wihan and composition with Dvo?ák, who had joined the teaching staff in January 1891. Under Wihan, Suk played second violin in the group which in 1892 became known as the Czech Quartet; its first concert in Vienna (1893) won the approval of Brahms and Hanslick and inaugurated a distinguished international career during which it gave more than 4000 concerts until Suk’s retirement in 1933. Under Dvo?ák, Suk graduated from the conservatory in 1892 with his Dramatická ouvertura op.4. He was Dvo?ák’s favourite pupil and in 1898 married his daughter Otilie (Otilka). Simrock had published his Serenade for strings op.6 (1892) in 1896 on Brahms’s recommendation and by the turn of the century Suk was regarded, with Novák, as the leading composer of the modern Czech school. In 1922 he was appointed professor of composition for the advanced classes of the Prague Conservatory, where he trained 35 composers, including Bo?kovec, Ježek, Hlobil, Martin?, Reiner, Va?ká? and several Slovenes, Croats, Serbs and Poles. During his four terms as rector (1924–6, 1933–5) he worked energetically to raise the standards of the conservatory. He was an extraordinary (1901) and ordinary (1913) member of the Czech Academy of Sciences and in 1933 was awarded an honorary doctorate by Brno University.
Suk won early success as a composer, writing some of his best-known pieces (the Serenade for strings and the Píse? lásky, ‘Love Song’, from his op.7 piano pieces, 1891–3) before he was 20, and was soon regarded as Dvo?ák’s natural successor. Despite opportunities through his constant travels as a performer to hear the latest European novelties he was subject to no other strong musical influences; his virtuoso orchestral technique and subtle control of sound show his awareness of Strauss and the French Impressionists, but he followed his own path in a steady, organic development from lyrical Romanticism towards a complex polytonal musical language.
Like his teacher Dvo?ák he was most at home with instrumental music. His early mass (1888–90) was his only venture into liturgical music; he wrote almost no songs; and the three choral sets of 1899–1900, opp.15, 18 and 19, though well made and effective, are essentially explorations of a genre to which he returned only once more with his male-voice choruses op.32 (1911–12). He wrote no operas but the second of the two plays for which he supplied incidental music, Pod jabloní (‘Beneath the Apple Tree’, op.20, 1900–01), includes sustained choral scenes which give the suite (1912) arranged from it an almost oratorio-like character. As in the earlier score Radúz a Mahulena (‘Radúz and Mahulena’, 1897–8), there are, in addition to the instrumental pieces, a few short songs and some melodrama passages for important scenes.
It is surprising that as a professional quartet player Suk wrote so little chamber music. Much of it originated from his student days as he tried out various combinations (the String Quartet in D minor, 1888; Piano Trio op.2, Piano Quartet op.1 and Piano Quintet op.8, 1889–93). The most successful chamber work from this period is the String Quartet op.11 (1896), which has all the freshness and melodic charm of Suk’s early music and, in its slow movement, a foretaste of the more serious and personal style of Asrael. He wrote only one more quartet (op.31, 1911). Although his only important works for the solo violin are the well-known ?ty?i skladby (‘Four Pieces’, op.17, 1900) and a one-movement concerto, the Fantasy op.24 (1902–3), the sound of the solo violin combining with the orchestra is one that permeates much of Suk’s music, from the famous Radúzsolo onwards. Suk was also a fine pianist, performing frequently to his friends and occasionally in public, and he wrote rather more piano music. The earlier compositions were generally published in small groups of characteristic pieces (opp.7, 10 and 12, 1891–6) whose full-blooded, well-placed chords suggest Brahms, but whose undemanding forms, rich if meretricious harmony, melodic clichés and fluent passage-work more often suggest the salon. The Suite op.21 (1900, originally planned as a sonatina) attempts a more balanced design, continued in the programmatic suites Jaro (‘Spring’) op.22a and Letní dojmy (‘Summer Impressions’) op.22b, both written in 1902 after the birth of his son. They illustrate Suk’s subjective Romantic piano style at its ripest, the last piece of op.22a, ‘V roztoužení’ (‘In Love’), achieving a popularity similar to that of the Love Song from op.7. But op.22a also contains ‘Vánek’ (‘The Breeze’), a delicate, Impressionistic piece, revealing a more imaginative approach to figuration, and a type of harmony that was turning from heavy chromaticism to a more modal idiom. These qualities, and the intimate nature of O matince (‘About Mother’, op.28, 1907), written after the death of his wife, are developed in Suk’s greatest work for the piano, the suite of ten short pieces Životem a snem (‘Things Lived and Dreamt’, op.30, 1909). All have detailed descriptions of their character, some have additional programmes (no.5 ‘on the recovery of my son’) and all inhabit a very personal world; in their economical evocation of mood, their exploration of new musical means and their assured piano technique they foreshadow Debussy’s Préludes. In later piano works such as Uko?ébavky (‘Lullabies’, op.33, 1910–12) and O p?átelství (‘About Friendship’, op.36, 1920), Suk pared down his means to achieve a classic simplicity in which the subtle control of harmony is particularly striking.
Suk’s central achievement was in orchestral music. The high point of his early orchestral writing is the Serenade for strings op.6 (1892) and the op.16 suite, Pohádka (‘Fairy Tale’, 1899–1900), arranged from the Radúz music. The more ambitious works that followed, the Violin Fantasy op.24 (1902–3) and the Straussian tone poem Praga op.26 (1904), have a slightly portentous quality that seems out of keeping with Suk’s limited emotional range up to then. The deaths of Dvo?ák (1904) and his daughter (1905), Suk’s young wife, within the space of 14 months shattered the composer’s life and attitudes, and set into motion the vast Asrael symphony op.27 (1905–6). It is arguably his greatest work, and one of the finest and most eloquent pieces of orchestral music of its time, comparable with Mahler in its structural mastery and emotional impact. Although none of the orchestral works which follow Asraelare designated symphonies, all have symphonic ambitions and proportions, particularly the two single-movement pieces Zrání (‘Ripening’, op.34, 1912–7) and Epilog op.37 (1920–29). Pohádka léta (‘A Summer’s Tale’, op.29, 1907–9) is the lightest of the post-Asrael orchestral works, a suite more than a symphony, showing a serene acceptance of life whose equanimity is disturbed only by the poignancy of the ‘Blind Musicians’ movement or the Mahlerian imagery of the fourth movement, ‘In the Power of Phantoms’. As the title suggests, Ripening charts a man’s personal development (that of Suk himself) as he grows through the pain of life’s tragedies. In Epilog the psychological programme – made more concrete by the texts sung by soloists and chorus – becomes darker as its subject begins to contemplate his own mortality.
Unlike his Czech contemporaries Janá?ek and Novák, Suk derived almost no stimulus from folk music and very little from literary sources. Julius Zeyer’s was the only important literary influence on him: his Radúz and Mahulena, with its legendary Slavonic world, its message of true, courageous love and clear-cut moral values articulated much of the young Suk’s outlook on life. Its dreamy, slightly sad, introspective mood is one that runs through much of Suk’s early music, at first no more perhaps than as a fin-de-siècle pessimism, but soon acquiring a specifically Slavonic direction characterized by his dumka music. Suk wrote dumkas in opp.7 and 21 (the poco triste movement of op.17 was also originally entitled ‘Dumka’) but there are dumka-like movements (such as the Legenda of op.10) in all his early music. The funeral march is another Radúz feature, anticipated in Suk’s early orchestral funeral march (1889, dedicated to himself), apotheosized in the second movement of Asrael and becoming terrifyingly grim in the march section of Ripening (based on the seventh piece, marked ‘forthright, later with an expression of overpowering force’, of Things Lived and Dreamt). In the polka music for the ‘game of the swan and the peacocks’ in Radúz (later worked into the second movement of the suite) Suk wrote in a popular style derived from Czech dance music. There are other such pieces among the piano music (notably the minuet from op.21) and even during the years of Ripening and Epilog Suk wrote light, appealing music such as the Ella Polka (1909) or the marches V nový život (‘Towards a New Life’, op.35c, 1919–20), which won him an award at the 1932 Olympics at Los Angeles, and Pod Blaníkem (‘Beneath Blaník’, 1932). His last composition was a Czech dance, a Sousedská (1935) for small chamber ensemble.
Radúz is central to Suk’s development. He identified the young couple Radúz and Mahulena with himself and his wife at the happiest time of their lives; it drew from him his most radiant, tender, earnest and abundantly melodic music. He remodelled some of it in his next work, the women’s choruses op.15. It also became a point of reference for future works, its death motif of two augmented 4ths recurring prominently from Asraelonwards. There are other examples in Suk’s later music (notably in Things Lived and Dreamt and Ripening) of self-quotation and other personal symbols. Another prominent topos is that of the ‘fantastic dance’. Early examples are the ‘Bacchanale’ in Beneath the Apple Tree (1900–01) and the Fantastické scherzo op.25 (1903), a danse macabre with banal waltz rhythms, quirky chromatic tunes and highly imaginative orchestration. Later metamorphoses in the scherzo movements of Asrael and A Summer’s Tale suppress the dance element and heighten the malevolence of the fantasy. In Epilog the dance is propelled by the biblical quotation sung by the male chorus: ‘Prach jsi a v prach se obrátíš!’ (‘Death thou art and unto death shalt thou return!’). This verbal context, together with the death theme from Radúz on the brass cutting through skirling wind, scurrying strings, death-rattle side-drums and the moaning of demons (the wordless male chorus), conjures up an apocalyptic vision whose intensity is unique in Suk’s work.
Suk’s late orchestral music had become very complicated. His harmony was originally sensuously Romantic, with a fondness for augmented chords (especially that of the augmented 5th), chromatic alteration, Neapolitan relations and the tonal ambiguity produced by frequent pedals (e.g. in pedal movements such as the lullaby from About Mother and the second movement of Asrael). Later he began to exploit polytonality more explicitly and systematically in Ripening and Epilog. He was able to make these last scores comprehensible only by his precise aural imagination and his superb craftsmanship as an orchestrator, a skill on which he placed great emphasis as a teacher.
Suk’s later formal control grew from unpretentious beginnings. Most of his piano pieces have simple repetitive structures; he successfully employed (e.g. in the violin Balada, 1890) the fashionable monothematicism of the time but his early attempts at sonata form, even in the last movement of the Serenade for strings are uneven, lacking a sense of the dramatic opposition of key centres (so striking in Asrael) and tending towards an uncharacteristic long-windedness. The seams of the one-movement Violin Fantasy are carelessly concealed, but the later single-movement string quartet is much more subtle and adept. It cost him much effort, even at the height of his powers, and prepared the way for the impressive single spans of Ripening and Epilog. These two pieces showed Suk’s musical language at its utmost sophistication, his response to the modern music he came across on his frequent tours. They also showed him dangerously far from his roots as a simple ‘muzikant’ of the Czech kantor tradition. From about 1912 his rate of composition noticeably slackened. His tiring life as a performer meant that composition was a spare-time occupation; his duties at the Prague Conservatory, which he took very seriously, made further demands, but as the premières of his works became more spaced out it became clear that neither these commitments nor the increasing effort that the later scores must have cost fully explained the gaps. Suk seems to have had misgivings about his increasingly complicated musical speech, alien to many of his listeners; indeed, he derived a childlike pleasure from the enthusiasm that his popular pieces (such as the New Life march) aroused. The gulf between Suk the kantor and Suk the sophisticate was perhaps too great to bridge.