NOVAK: In the Tatra Mountains; Lady Godiva; Eternal Longing – Buffalo Phil. Orch./ JoAnn Falletta – Naxos

Relatively neglected but richly colorful scores by Novak have opulent realization from the BPO under JoAnn Falletta.  

Vitezslav NOVAK: In the Tatra Mountains, Op. 26; Lady Godiva – Overture, Op. 41; Eternal Longing, Op. 33 – Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra/ JoAnn Falletta – Naxos 8.573683, 52:47 (4/14/17) ****:

I first encountered the often “shimmering” music of Vitezslav Novak (1870-1949) by way of a Supraphon LP, on which both Vaclav Talich and Karel Ancerl led the Czech Philharmonic in selected works. Atmospheric and harmonically opulent, this music engaged me in a way reminiscent at once of Janacek and Richard Strauss, especially fecund in folk, landscape – and literary – allusions, courtesy of studies with Antonin Dvorak.

The opening work – which I knew from Karel Ancerl – In the Tatras (1902), those rugged mountains between the Czech and Polish borders, has as its basis a poetic preface on the score by Novak, who writes – in the manner of Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” – of an impending thunderstorm whose energies suggest rage and conflict, only to yield to the peace of the setting sun, distant peals of evening bells, and the “pearls” of the sky’s blending with the mountains. The muted, filmy, opening phrases – the high pedal reminiscent of Borodin – invite strings and winds to describe a colossal and seductive landscape, underlined by active tympani. The “cathedral of Nature” effect might owe debts to Dvorak’s In Nature’s Realm,” Op. 91. The bass clarinet and a series of interjections from the strings, high and low, along with brass, accelerate the pace of the thunderheads. With the cooperation of strings, winds, and augmented battery, the storm unleashes with the aural volume we know from the Strauss Alpine Symphony.  Bucolic sounds emerge from violin solo and supporting, muted strings and winds to renew the natural harmony and pantheistic opulence of the vista, glorified in the brass. The viola, cello and pealing bells complete the mystery. In the last pages, our “camera eye” takes in the gamut of the mountain range’s power and potential glory (rec. 6 June 2016).

Novak composed the Lady Godiva Overture (1907) in the amazing two days’ duration, meant for the debut of the new Prague Municipal Theatre. The classic tale, both heroic and picaresque, derives from the 11th Century Coventry setting, of an unjust tax levied by Count Leotric, whose beautiful wife, Lady Godiva, protested by riding naked through the Coventry streets. The Count has his stolid portrayed in dark c minor, while a sympathetic Andante in E-flat Major defines Lady Godiva.  A kind of galloping conflict ushers through the quartet-hour work, rife with brass, cymbals, and tympani. The central episode, fugal in nature, might elaborate on the “politics” of the married couple’s essential differences of perspective. A sense of nervous reconciliation and eventual apotheosis flows through the latter pages, aided by the diaphanous textures of string, harp, winds, brass, and bells from the Buffalo players (rec. 18 March, 2016).  At the 1907 premiere, the new play Lady Godiva, by Jaroslav Vrchlicky, opened the Prague Theatre.

Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875) provides the magical and elemental energies rife in Eternal Longing (1905) of Novak. The orchestral tissue seems an amalgam of colors, utilizing the oboe, brass, and harp; then, we have a pounding sense of rhythm given by low strings and tympani. We “see” flying cranes, and we “feel” amorphous forms lurking in the waters. The string tremolos accompany a kind of trombone and trumpet chorale (rec. 18 March 2016).  The music erupts into a martial episode, with high winds and sustained, punctuated brass and low-wind chords. All the tension evaporates to reveal a purity of Natural horizon quite enchanted. Novak could have scored this sequence for Larry Durrell’s spiritual ascent in The Razor’s Edge.  A musing violin solo addresses these splendors. The darkly martial spirit re-enters, but only momentarily, since the viola and echoing now supply consolation. Once more, the hazy mythos of Richard Strauss dominates the rhapsodic canvas, the flute’s singing above the mist, a la Caspar Friedrich. The dreamy threads of color return to create a “cyclic” impression on this often voluptuous music – with just a hint of Ein Heldenleben in the late pages- captured in its brilliant scoring by engineer Tim Handley.

—Gary Lemco

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