DVORAK: Piano Concerto, Op. 33 / The Water Goblin (Antoni Wit/ Beata Jankowska/ Jeno Jando/ Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra) (Naxos: 8.550896)
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Antonín Dvorak (1841 - 1903)
Piano Concerto in G Minor, Op. 33
The Water Goblin (Vodnik), Op. 107
Antonín Dvorak must be considered the greatest of the Czech nationalist composers of the later nineteenth century, and he continues to enjoy the widest international popularity. His achievement was to bring together music that derived its inspiration from Bohemia's woods and fields with the classical traditions continued by Brahms in Vienna, at the same time establishing a distinctively Czech musical idiom and suggesting the future development of music stemming from what had long been a rich source of musical inspiration within the Habsburg Empire.
Dvorak was born in 1841 in a village of Bohemia, where his father combined the trades of inn-keeper and butcher, which it was expected that his son would later follow. As a child he played in his father's village band, his early training as a violinist in the hands of the village schoolmaster. Schooling in Zlonice, where he was sent at the age of twelve, lodging with an uncle, allowed instruction in the rudiments of music from Antonín Liehmann. Two years later he was sent to Kamenice to learn German, but the following year the needs of his family made it necessary for him to return to Zlonice, where his parents had now settled, to help in the butcher's shop. Liehmann continued his lessons and persuaded his father to allow him to study in Prague. In 1857 he entered the Prague Organ School, where he was able to remain for two years.
Dvorak at first earned his living in Prague playing the viola in a band led by Karel Komsák, which was later to form part of the orchestra of the Provisional Theatre, established in 1862. He was to become principal viola-player and to continue as an orchestral player for the next nine years, for some time under the direction of Smetana, who exercised considerable influence on Dvorak's parallel work as a composer. In 1871 he found himself able to resign from the orchestra and to marry. He took a position as organist at the church of St. Adalbert, taught a few pupils and otherwise devoted himself to composition. It was through the encouragement of Brahms, four years later, that his music was brought gradually to the attention of a much wider public. In particular Brahms was able to persuade Simrock to publish Dvorak's vocal Moravian Duets. Their success was followed by the publisher's request for further music of this kind, resulting in the first series of Slavonic Dances, Opus 46, composed for piano duet, but orchestrated at the same time by the composer. The same year, 1878, saw the composition of the three Slavonic Rhapsodies, Opus 45.
From this time onwards Dvorak's fame grew and he was to win particular popularity in Germany and in England, visiting the latter country on several occasions and fulfilling commissions for choral works for Birmingham and Leeds. In 1891 he was appointed professor of composition at Prague Conservatory and the following year accepted an invitation to go to New York as director of the new National Conservatory. The period in America gave rise to one of his best known works, the Symphony From the New World. By 1895 he was back again in Prague, teaching at the Conservatory, of which he became director in 1901. He died two years later.
It was in 1876 that Dvorak wrote his Piano Concerto in G minor. It was composed for the well known Czech pianist Karel Slavkosky, who had taken part in the first performance of Dvorak's A major Piano Quintet in 1872, at a time when he had yet to achieve standing as a composer. The concerto was first performed in Prague on 24th March 1878 and published five years later. Dvorak himself was not primarily a pianist, and there was a later revision of the solo part by Vildm Kurz, introducing a more conventionally pianistic form of writing. The concerto, in any case, follows established form, opening with an orchestral exposition in which the principal theme is introduced, with two subsidiary subjects appearing later in the movement, the first entrusted to the violins, taken up at once by the piano, and the second a more sedate hymn-like theme, its phrases answered by the soloist. The first movement ends in the key of G minor, after conflict with the key of G major, that seems at one time likely to win the day. This is followed by a D major Andante sostenuto, with a meditative theme for the French horn and a singing theme for the soloist. A more animated central section of increased excitement is followed by the return of the serenity of the opening, its thematic material now varied. The concerto ends with a rondo, introduced by the soloist, with the second and third themes offered by the piano in the remoter keys of F sharp minor and B major, the last using the interval of the augmented second so often associated with the exotic. The second theme provides the substance of the development and all three themes re-appear and are eventually combined in the conclusion.
Dvorak was a prolific composer for the orchestra and his nine symphonies form an essential part of symphonic repertoire, although the overwhelming popularity of the last, From the New World, has tended to distract attention from the earlier symphonies. The group of symphonic poems written in 1896 and 1897 are of particular interest, coming as they do three years after the last symphony and exhibiting a musical language based to some extent on the intonations of speech and generally associated therefore rather with the work of Mussorgsky and Jand6ek. These compositions in any case represent a departure into territory more familiar from Liszt or Richard Strauss in their use of extra-musical elements.
Four of the five symphonic poems of Dvorak are based on poems by Karel Jaromír Erben, a collection of ballads published under the collective title of The Garland. The first of these, Vodnik, The Water Goblin, finds the malicious spirit of the title singing of his coming marriage on the following day. The girl he is to marry has been irresistibly drawn to the goblin in the water, although her mother has warned her not to go near the lake. As she approaches the water, the ground sinks beneath her feet and she is drawn down into the water, where she becomes the goblin's wife. In the depths of the lake she
grows sad, since it is in this gloomy place that the goblin holds the souls of those who have drowned. She sings a song to her child in which she regrets what has happened. When the goblin hears her complaint, he is angry and threatens to change her into a fish, but is persuaded to allow her to return for one day to dry land, although he keeps her child as a hostage against her return. The girl and her mother are overjoyed that they are together again, and when the goblin angrily knocks at the door, he is turned away by the girl's mother. At this he raises a great storm, during the course of which something is hurled against the door of the house: it is the body of the child, its head cut from the body. The tragic and gruesome story is reflected in the musical narrative.
Jeno Jandó was born in Pécs, in south Hungary, in 1952. He started to learn the piano when he was seven and later studied at the Ferenc Liszt Academy of Music under Katalin Nemes and Pál Kadosa, becoming assistant to the latter on his graduation in 1974. Jandó has won a number of piano competitions in Hungary and abroad, including first prize in the 1973 Hungarian Piano Concours and a first prize in the chamber music category at the Sydney International Piano Competition in 1977. In addition to his many appearances in Hungary, he has played widely abroad