ALBUM TITLE: Smetana
WORKS: Piano Works: Souvenirs de Bohème, Opp. 12-13; Fantasie concertante on Czech Folk Songs; Macbeth and the Witches, etcPiano Works, Vol. 2: Rêves; Stammbuchblätter; Andante in E flat; Wedding ScenesPiano Works, Vol. 3: Czech Dances; Romance in G minor;
PERFORMER: Jitka ?echová (piano)Kathryn Stott (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: SU 3841-2,SU 3842-2,SU 3843-2,CHAN 10430
It’s strange, given the profusion of his works for piano, that Smetana should still be thought of largely in terms of opera (plus his wonderful symphonic poem Má Vlast). Seven years ago András Schiff sought to redress the balance with a engaging CD of the polkas (on Teldec), but now we have a broader survey of his piano works
by Kathryn Stott, as well as the completion of an authoritative collection on three CDs by the Czech pianist Jitka ?echová: at last we can see just how good Smetana’s pianistic oeuvre actually is.
It springs out of the fact that, though self-taught rather than systematically tutored, Smetana was one of the most accomplished pianists of his age: he was just unfortunate to have to compete for audiences with Liszt and Clara Schumann, with both of whom he was friendly. But his musical career had very different roots: he made his name in his mid-teens as a player and dancer in salon gatherings, and though his piano music ranged much more widely than his country’s indigenous dance forms, they were what he always came back to; even in those pieces which were not technically-speaking polkas, the polka was often discernible.
‘The polka must be danced quietly and without any awkward gestures’‚ said one contemporary ball-room manual. ‘The steps should be taken in the smallest compass, and in the very neatest manner.’ And that is exactly what Smetana’s polkas reflect: he uses tumbling angular cascades, and his rhythms are pulsating but regular; decorous gaiety is the keynote. But as ?echová’s survey shows, he was enormously inventive in how he handled the basic form:
he aimed to explore its possibilities as Chopin did with the mazurka. And if his music has echoes of Chopin, it never feels derivative, any more than it does of the music of Liszt, his other great exemplar. If many of his piano works were pièces d’occasion, they are always more than that. The Dreams – six pieces composed after syphilis had robbed him of his hearing –
were written for six devoted students to play at a benefit concert for him, but each is an intense evocation of a separate aspect of Czech life.
Jitka ?echová and Kathryn Stott are both excellent, but in quite different ways. ?echová’s approach is muscular and virtuosic: she takes the brilliant Concert etude in C major dizzyingly fast, and whenever the composer gives her licence, positively hurtles across the keyboard. Stott’s approach is more measured, and more poetic. In her hands, the showers of notes garlanding the melody in On the Seashore have irresistible beauty, while the Czech dance entitled ‘Hulán’ (‘lancer’) has an extraordinary tenderness. These pianists have opened a treasure trove, which others should now start plundering. Smetana may not have been touched by the divine wind like Chopin, but his work compares very favourably against the better-known Mendelssohn’s. Michael Church