DVORAK: Slavonic Rhapsodies Op. 45, Nos. 1 - 3 (Libor Pesek/ Martin Burlas/ Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra/ Zdenek Kosler) (Naxos: 8.550610)
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Antonin Dvorak (1841 - 1904)
Rhapsody Op. 14
Slavonic Rhapsodies Op. 45, Nos. 1, 2 & 3
Antonin Dvorak must be considered the greatest of the Czechnationalist composers of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, and he certainlyenjoys the widest international popularity. His achievement was to bring together musicthat derived its inspiration from Bohemia's woods and fields with the classical traditionscontinued by Brahms in Vienna.
Dvorak was born in 1841 in a village of Bohemia, where hisfather combined the trades of inn-keeper and butcher, which it was expected that his sonwould later follow. As a child he played in his father's village band, his early trainingwas as a violinist in the hands of the village schoolmaster. Schooling in Zlonice, wherehe was sent at the age of twelve, lodging with an uncle, allowed instruction in therudiments of music from Antonin Liehmann. Two years later he was sent to Kamenice to learnGerman, but the following year the needs of his family made it necessary for him to returnto Zlonice, where his parents had now settled, to help in the butcher's shop. Liehmanncontinued his lessons and persuaded his father to allow him to study in Prague. In 1857 heentered the Prague Organ School, where he was able to remain for two years.
Dvorak at first earned his living in Prague playing the violain a band led by Karel Komsak, which was later to form part of the Provisional Theatreorchestra, established in 1862. He was to become principal viola-player and to continue asan orchestral player for the next nine years, for some time under the direction ofSmetana, who exercised considerable influence on Dvoraks parallel work as acomposer.
In 1871 Dvorak found himself able to resign from theProvisional Theatre orchestra and to marry. He took a position as organist at the churchof St. Adalbert, taught a few pupils and otherwise devoted himself to composition. It wasthrough the encouragement of Brahms, four years later, that his music was broughtgradually to the attention of a much wider public. In particular Brahms was able topersuade Simrock to publish Dvorak's Moravian Duets.
Their success was followed by the publisher's request for a further set, the first seriesof Slavonic Dances, Opus 46, also composedfor 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 was to grow and he was towin particular popularity in Germany and in England, visiting the latter country onseveral occasions and fulfilling commissions for choral works for Birmingham and Leeds. In1891 he was appointed professor of composition at Prague Conservatory and the followingyear accepted an invitation to go to New York as director of the new NationalConservatory. 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 theConservatory, of which he became director in 1901. He died two years later.
This brief account of Dvorak's life ignores the considerableamount of music he wrote, compositions of much more diversity than is always apparent frommodern concert programmes, which confine their attention to the unmistakably popular.
Nevertheless even the most frequently played of his works are not staled by custom. The Slavonic Dances, for example, retain all theirfreshness and life, qualities shared by the more extended Slavonic Rhapsodies.
The Rhapsody in A Minor,variously numbered Opus 14, 15, 18 or 19, was conceived as a symphonic poem, a title itsometimes bears, on the model of Smetana's Vysehrad,with a nod towards the form of the symphonic poem developed by Liszt. The work wascompleted in the autumn of 1874 and published posthumously in 1912. In order ofcomposition it follows the fourth of Dvorak's nine symphonies and the first half dozen ofhis fourteen string quartets, and is by no means the work of a novice. The Rhapsody, overtly nationalist in melodic content,shows a firm handling of the orchestra in a form that is occasionally inclined to theepisodic.
The Slavonic Rhapsodies
have a less immediate appeal. The first of them, in D Major, has been unkindly compared toan operatic selection, a comment on its structure and content. After a gentle, pastoralopening, the music moves on to a march that turns into a peasant dance and then tosomething more meditative, as the mood changes. After a passage of considerable activity,the Rhapsody ends as peacefully as it hadbegun.
Dvorak dedicated his three SlavonicRhapsodies of 1878 to a critic, a rare expression of gratitude by a composer toa maligned profession, after an enthusiastic review of his first set of Slavonic Dances. Described as more Slav thanrhapsody, the second of the set, in G minor, may lack the appeal of the more popularthird, but offers music of characteristically vital energy, relaxing into an easy-goingwaltz, where a more academic composer might have preferred to develop the material.
The Third Slavonic Rhapsody,in A Flat Major, opens with a passage for the harp, the prelude to some bardic song,followed by the woodwind, deployed with Dvorak's usual skill. After this the violinsenter with a flourish and the drama intensifies, before the appearance of a winningdance-tune. There is an interlude during which solo violin and solo flute lead back to thedance once more and further moments of brief repose, before the music whirls on to anending that brings its own surprise.
The Czech conductor Zdenek Koler studied under KarelAncerl at the Prague Academy of Arts, and distinguished himself early in his career at theBesan?ºon Conductors' Competition and in the Dimitri Mitropoulos Competition in New York.
The first prize in the second of these enabled him to work as assistant-conductor withLeonard Bernstein for one year.
In Czecho-Slovakia Koler began as conductor of the Pragueopera ensemble, before becoming chief conductor and music director of the opera in Olomoucand Ostrava. He spent a short time as permanent conductor of the Prague SymphonyOrchestra, before moving to Berlin, where he was appointed Music Director of the KomischeOper in 1965. In 1971 he became chief conductor of the Slovak National Theatre Opera,undertaking engagements at the same time with the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra, andconducting the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra in Prague, in addition to guest appearanceswith major orchestras abroad, in Europe, Canada and the Far East.
As permanent conductor of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra ZdenekKoler has travelled widely. From 1980 until 1985 he was chief conductor and artisticdirector of the Prague National Theatre Opera to which he will return as chief conductorin 1990. He has received the highest national honour, the title National Artist, from theCzecho-Slovakian government, while winning awards abroad for his recordings.
Libor Peek was born in 1933 and studied conducting at thePrague Academy of Musical Arts, later appearing at home and abroad with his own ensembles.
For nine years he directed orchestras at Leeuwarden and Enschede in Holland and was formany years principal conductor of the Pardubice State Orchestra. After achievingconsiderable success as music director of