Piano Concerto; At Dusk; Tonan and the Wood Nymph
Jan Bartoš (piano); Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra/Jakub Hrůša
Supraphon SU42842 62:36 mins
Novák and Suk, after the death of Dvořák with whom both men studied, were very much the leaders in a developing modernism in early 20th-century Czech music. Like Suk, Novák was responsive to French Impressionism and also to the music of Richard Strauss, but unlike Suk, he looked to folksong, mostly Moravian and Slovakian, for inspiration in many of his works. His Piano Concerto, completed in 1895, was written just after his student days. Novák in his maturity called it a ‘monstrosity’, and seems to have had a certain horror of the many influences apparent in the concerto’s musical fabric: Liszt and Dvořák, certainly, but also Chopin and Grieg. While the musical language is under-baked, there is plenty to enjoy, not least the exquisite end to the first movement. While evidently expert, Jan Bartoš and Jakub Hrůša’s performance is slightly tentative in the outer movements.
Composed ten years later, Toman and the Wood Nymph is far more original and confident than the concerto. The tale on which it is based is that of a young man driven mad by a wood nymph on the perilous night of St John’s Eve. Novák described the work as a ‘sonic orgy’ and it is certainly heady stuff. Hrůša and the orchestra respond well to its turbulent passions in a captivating performance with superb recorded sound. Composed a year after the Piano Concerto, the four movements of At Dusk for solo piano have greater character and in a performance as committed as that of Jan Bartoš show clear evidence of greatness to come.