NOVAK: Orchestral Works I = Jihoceska Suita (South Bohemian Suite), Op. 14; Toman a lesni panna (Toman and the Wood Nymph), Op. 40 – Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra/ Marek Stilec – Naxos 8.574226(10/17/20) 65:11 ****:
The music of Vitezslav Novak (1870-1949) first came to my attention by a recording by the devoted conductor Vaclav Talich of Novak’s Slovak Suite, Op. 32. Karel Ancerl, another Czech conductor of conviction, introduced me to Novak’s esteemed symphonic poem of 1902, In the Tatras. Marek Stilec, a graduate of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague, leads the present Novak compositions in recordings made 29-31 October 2019.
The South Bohemian Suite(1937) represents Novak’s decision to include regional folk songs into his music after his change of style had occurred with the advent of WW I. Having found an immediate advocate in conductor Erich Kleiber – who led the premiere performance in the spring of 1937 – the music proceeds in four movements, the first of which, “Pastoral Horizons,” creates a bucolic aura that piano, harp, horns, and percussion complement in often vivid colors. Recall that Novak had been a composition student of Dvorák, and Novak rose to prominence with a series of increasingly ambitious orchestral works that reflect his very personal amalgam of folk music elements, Impressionism and late Romanticism. The second movement, “Reverie: Forests and Ponds,” has a decided quality of tone painting from Delius or Loeffler, a pantheistic idyll. The textures emerge with a delicate sense of erotic tracery, possibly homage to Debussy. The serene vision suffers a bit of uncertainty in the late pages, only to concede to the quietude of Nature.
The third movement takes advantage of national impulses Smetana had utilized in Ma Vlast: “Once Upon a Time: March of the Hussites” begins ominously, the martial impulse’s gaining fretful momentum, crescendo. Given the political context of 1937, we can understand Novak’s urgent sense to retain for Czechoslovakia a national, heroic identity. This music concludes with a brief Epilogue: To My Homeland,” much as Dvorak’s symphonic poems end with an equivalent of a moral from a fairy tale. The Hussite march serves as a coda, but here Novak subdues the martial tune for its lyrical call among winds and strings, directed to the heart rather than to arms, though the last chords ring with determination.
The symphonic poem Toman and the Wood Nymph(1907) had been included in a series of orchestral pieces collectively entitled Desire and Passions, perhaps analogous to the Dvorak triptych Nature, Life, and Love, Opp. 91-93. Novak at the time had no less fallen under the spell of Richard Strauss, especially of his opera Salome, whose “purple” harmonies he found captivating. The tale of Toman, betrayed by his lover on Midsummer Eve and eventually dying in the arms of a woodland sprite, synthesized Novak’s penchant for supernaturally magical contexts and the compulsions of human passion.
Novak’s scoring easily urges comparisons with contemporaries Richard Strauss and Paul Dukas, in terms of potent, orchestral colors and restless energies. The woodwinds, complemented by sudden brass outbursts, create with the strings in an eerie intensity, much in the style of an evolving rhapsody. Again, we sense an affinity for the fantasy worlds invoked by Arnold Bax, Frederick Delius, and Charles Loeffler. A solo violin enters into the enchantment, until a fateful clarinet dispels the reverie. The harmonies, even in the vivid impressionism and modalities, more often evoke aspects of Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande, while the low grumblings and tympanic punctuations in primal heat may be distant cousins of moments in the Richard Strauss treatment of Oscar Wilde. The recorded sound, courtesy of Producer Jiri Stilec – I suppose a relative of our conductor – proves both warm and pungent.