DVORAK: Poetic Tone Pictures, Op. 85 – Leif Ove Andsnes, piano – SONY 19439912092 (9/12/22) (51:33)****:
While Dvorak’s reputation rests mainly on his symphonic, chamber music, and concerto output, as well as song cycles and operas, he did pen some imposing – and charming – keyboard works, including his set of 13 pieces from 1889 he calls Poetic Tone Pictures, Op. 85. Almost two generations ago, Anton Kubalek (1935-2011) recorded these intriguing miniatures, a suite in something of the Schumann style, cross-fertilized by Grieg’s lyricism and Dvorak’s own, hearty, Czech nationalism.
The initial piece, “Twilight Way,” sets a magical, narrative temper in B Major that easily correlates to Schumann’s penchant for maerchen, fairy-tale episodes. In ternary form, the middle section brings some ardent passion and manic energy in the tonic minor, but the return invests even more calm, music-box innocence to the occasion. “Toying” indeed scampers with a light, frolicking canter that soon treats a simple melody to rich colors, Allegretto, a la Grieg. The runs in 16th notes pose their own, bravura magic. The third piece, “In the Old Castle,” indulges dark, chromatic harmony to invoke a sense of antique mystery, in a confined space, perhaps sensitive to the colors Dvorak would soon paint orchestrally, in the slow movement of his Symphony No. 8 in G Major. Andsnes’ right hand filigree, in quivering runs, might suggest flight or nearby rivulets. The fourth selection, “Spring Song,” inhales a secure sense of space after the claustrophobic Castle. Marked Poco allegro, the music surges in set periods in the manner of Schumann.
The fifth piece, “Peasant’s Ballad” (Allegro giusto), has a sturdy, almost Norwegian demeanor, whose melody serves an impromptu impulse, rife with recitative, bold, bass octave passages, and a vivacious waltz. “Sorrowful Reverie,” No. 6, marks the end of a first half to this cycle: a two-part cycle would have appealed to publisher Simrock in the same way that the Slavonic Dances form two books. This moment of swagger sounds similar to moments in Gershwin and Gottschalk, utilizing shifting bass harmonies to enhance the Andante motion, which seems a step away from a Czech tango.
The No. 7 “Furiant” resorts to a national standard in the Dvorak arsenal, an Incisively brisk dance laden with cross rhythms, balanced by gentle impulses of a bucolic character. This Allegro feroce reveals the pungent energy available to Andsnes, who still retains the light urge to dance. The “Goblin’s Dance” (Allegretto) that follows reminds some of us of a virtuoso violin work by Bazzini: the bold, staccato chordal structure has a narrative element, rather simple in its bouncy means. The central section sounds a bit like music at a piano bar in any metropolitan city, sentimentally arpeggiated. The da capo has assumed some music-box sonority.
The No. 9, “Serenade” (Moderato e molto cantabile), proffers what Andsnes calls “a trivial melody” that “out of this folklike innocence [Dvorak] creates an absolute jewel.” The middle part, lulling in its siciliano meter, casts a piety of expression quite memorable. In immediate contrast, the No. 10 “Bacchanale” demands accurate articulation of repeated notes in short bursts of interlocked chords, sudden dynamic shifts, and glamorous runs, all seamless in Andsnes’ virtuoso execution. Andsnes has compared its bravura to the intricacies of a Scarlatti sonata, but the chordal middle section reminds us of Chopin’s Third Scherzo, perhaps a bit more manic. The capacity for gentle irony in Dvorak, as it exists no less in his mentor Smetana, comes forth in No. 11 “Tittle-Tattle,” which proceeds in simple, narrative terms, Andante con moto – Un poco più mosso, to convey a frivolous mood of banter and gossip, much as we find in the Overture to The Bartered Bride.
The last pair of selections assumes a more serious, epic mood: “At a Hero’s Grave,” No. 12, Grave, Tempo di marcia, proves a rather extended narrative in Lisztian rhetoric, almost one of the Hungarian composer’s rhapsodies or ballades in dignified and tragic gestures. In its quieter moments, the piece finds Andsnes investing an intimacy and introspection akin to the calms before a Romantic storm and stress. The final work, “On the Holy Mountain” (Poco lento – L’istesso tempo) presents us a sense of august grandeur, here in the rare metric, 5/4, to which Andsnes does not always conform. Typical of Dvorak’s symphonic poem endings, a feeling of benediction evolves, or what might be termed in fairy tales as “and so my children. . .” This reverent hymn to Nature and to heroic vistas ends an imaginative cycle that, with Andnes’ new reading (rec. 21-24 April 2021), will likely receive the attention it has awaited unduly.
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