The sound-world is lush and saturated, an atmosphere captured well by Chandos' spacious recording. Straussian opulence with a soft Slav accent would be an apt description of these pieces. Throughout, Pesek exhibits an indigenous understanding of the Bohemian musical language, the BBC Philharmonic responding passionately. The tenderness of Lady Godiva (written in 1907 and apparently composed in two days) is touchingly portrayed and the imaginative orchestration of Toman and the Wood Nymph (1906-7), more daring than that of Godiva, is relished to the full. The later De Profundis (1941) proceeds in grand gestures on a journey from its initial subterranean rumblings to its organ-drenched, upliftingly triumphant conclusion. Warmly recommended. --Colin Clarke
Novak can be described, for the most part, as a heady, late-Romantic Dvorak. (Perhaps you have already heard Novak's music on a Virgin CD which contains the "Slovak Suite," "In the Tatra Mountains," and "Eternal Longing"-it's a wonderful recording.) He is a capable and imaginative melodist and orchestrator who, in the tradition of Wagner, Debussy, Strauss, and Janacek, avoids formal repetition and prefers to spin a musical narrative that constantly evolves and transforms itself. In other words, his music is through-composed rather than strophic.
Novak's spikes his simple and direct folk-like melodies with the most delightfully quirky harmonies and evocative orchestrations. Gestures of empty bombast and glutinous sentimentality, the twin progeny of late-Romantic immoderation, are fortunately kept to a minimum. The "Lady Godiva Overture" opens the CD, and it is a lovely piece. 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-it's haunting and beautiful music.
The next piece, "Toman and the Wood Nymph" (1907) is IMHO the near hit. It's interesting and imaginative but sprawling and stylistically 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 other parts of the tone-poem seem earth-bound in comparison.
"Die Profundis" reminds me of a famous meeting that never took place between Novak and Shostakovich, where Shostakovich made that famous comment to Novak: "...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.)
The radiance of the apotheosis that concludes the piece, however, is hardly suggestive of redemption gained through peace and brotherhood--no gleaming, upheld chalices here!-- it is more the distorted kind of light that one would see reflected off a vengefully wrought and blood-spattered sword. And what a big sword Novak symbolically waves at the German forces--with full orchestra, brass fanfares, organ, piano, bells, harps, and a triple forte bass drum roll every 4th beat, it's enough to make noise-sensitive neighbors definitely reach for theirs.
How to describe Novak's works, especially on first encounterings? Personal & deep, thematically fresh, somewhat progressive, & evocative orchestration. Novak was particularly attracted to the world of nature & to the female psyche (like Respighi & Strauss respectively). The Overture to Jaroslav Vrchlicky's play "Lady Godiva" comes to mind. I'm tempting to call it a symphonic fantasy, for it has the independence about it & paints a all-round picture of Lady Godiva (as sensitive, and strong sense of inner strength-represented by strings & harp) and of her husband, Leofric (as oppressive & selfish-depicted by the brass). It's an appealing, yet an expansive work, with a staunch opening not too remotely reminiscence of Smetana while echoes of Strauss can be detected, especially in the slow passages. The symphonic poem "Toman & the Wood Nymph" (1906-7) is likewise Straussian with touches of Respighi, Debussy, & Ravel (with the impressionistic-type beginning & the colourful & descriptive phrasings especially of the woodwinds & lower strings).
A powerful masterpiece, "De profundis" (1941), was composed in response to the Nazi occupation of Czechslovakia. Interestingly, it has a couple of similarities with Kodaly's "Psalmus Hungaricus" in that, apart from the large orchestra (with organ) required: 1) It has a very grim, serious, & tragic beginning, turning to hope & optimism, and 2) "De profundis" has biblical connotations embetted (the title "De profundis" was taken from the opening line Psalm 130 "Out of the depths have I cried"). Kodaly's masterpiece has a greater sense of anger & defiance at the first two movements while Novak's "De profundis" is mournful & tragic @ its' first movement (indeed, he shared the type of tragic expressions of Smetana). The second movement is likewise profound and provide a wonderful transition from anguish to light (the lightness exuberantly expressed in the Finale). Personally, I felt that Novak could have added a chorus in this deep, profound work. It would have earned a more deeper & longlasting impression.
Libor Pesek & the BBC Philharmonic gave vivid, authoritative, and passionate performances throughout & I especially admire the organ playing in "De profundis." It's a pity that the organist was never mentioned anywhere in this recording. Nevertheless, this enterprising disc is a type that should cast shame upon those refusing to explore beyond the "over-exposed" horizon. Dare I hope for Libor Pesek to embark on Novak's most important work, the cantata "The Storm?"
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