Though my friends, (after a series of short-lived, unfulfilling late-Romantic relationships involving Tcherepnin, Schmidt and Korngold among others), tell me over and over again that there's more to a composer than just his big orchestra, I continue to ignore them--this time grabbing Chandos' new release of music by Vitezslav Novak.
Novak can be described, for the most part, as a heady, late-Romantic Dvorak. (Perhaps you have already heard Novak's music on a Virgin CD which contains the "Slovak Suite," "In the Tatra Mountains," and "Eternal Longing"-it's a wonderful recording.) He is a capable and imaginative melodist and orchestrator who, in the tradition of Wagner, Debussy, Strauss, and Janacek, avoids formal repetition and prefers to spin a musical narrative that constantly evolves and transforms itself. In other words, his music is through-composed rather than strophic.
Novak's spikes his simple and direct folk-like melodies with the most delightfully quirky harmonies and evocative orchestrations. Gestures of empty bombast and glutinous sentimentality, the twin progeny of late-Romantic immoderation, are fortunately kept to a minimum. The "Lady Godiva Overture" opens the CD, and it is a lovely piece. The Lady's theme, first introduced on clarinet, is at once playful, fresh and innocent; and yet, (as only the East Europeans seem to be able to do it), sensual, sad and alluring at the same time. If you like the freshness and naivete of Janacek's "Vixen," Novak's Overture is just a little more to the right-it's haunting and beautiful music.
The next piece, "Toman and the Wood Nymph" (1907) is IMHO the near hit. It's interesting and imaginative but sprawling and stylistically uneven-- oscillating between the meat-and-potatoes sound of Dvorak and a darting, modernish impressionism that reminds me of the rhythms, colors and harmonies of Stravinsky's "Scherzo Fantastique"--ironically composed one year *later*
than Toman. Novak, in the heat of inspiration simply outdoes himself with the nymph music, and unfortunately other parts of the tone-poem seem earth-bound in comparison.
"Die Profundis" reminds me of a famous meeting that never took place between Novak and Shostakovich, where Shostakovich made that famous comment to Novak: "...the symphony must embrace the entire percussion section...."
Composed in 1941, Profundis was written during the Nazi occupation of the Czech nation and riskily premiered in Brno, whose population was half German and half Czech. The liner notes state that Novak "never disguised his hatred of the occupying German forces...." and as you can imagine Profundis, ("Out of the depths I have cried," Psalm 30), is hardly subtle. A sinister march grows out the depths and slowly, (magisterially), evolves into a double fugue, which builds in intensity and agitation over the span of 16 minutes. One can hear faint echoes of Shostakovich and Mahler throughout, but Novak never looses his own voice. (Delightfully snarling brass playing from the BBC.)
The radiance of the apotheosis that concludes the piece, however, is hardly suggestive of redemption gained through peace and brotherhood--no gleaming, upheld chalices here!-- it is more the distorted kind of light that one would see reflected off a vengefully wrought and blood-spattered sword. And what a big sword Novak symbolically waves at the German forces--with full orchestra, brass fanfares, organ, piano, bells, harps, and a triple forte bass drum roll every 4th beat, it's enough to make noise-sensitive neighbors definitely reach for theirs.