Slavonic Festival (Barry Wordsworth/ Libor Pesek/ Robert Stankovsky/ Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra/ Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra/ Zdenek Kosler) (Naxos: 8.550376)
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Antonín Dvorák (1841 - 1904)
Rusalka, Op. 114
Bedfich Smetana (1824 - 1884)
The Bartered Bride
Scherzo capriccioso, Op. 66
Leos Janácek (1854 - 1928)
Slavonic Rhapsody, Op. 45, No.2
The country formed in 1918 from Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia, established in freedom from Vienna as the republic of Czechoslovakia, had long served the Habsburg Empire as a fertile source of music and musicians. Prague, after all, had been the preferred residence of the earlier Habsburgs, Ferdinand I, Maximilian II and Rudolf I, until, after the defeat of the Czech nobility at the Battle of the White Mountain in 1620, the centre of imperial interest shifted to Vienna. Styles of music, however, were much in accordance with those generally prevalent in the courts of German-speaking countries. It was principally in the second half of the nineteenth century that music of an overtly national flavour appeared, as national consciousness grew. A revival of interest in the Czech language at the end of the eighteenth century had its later parallel in music.
It was with Bedrich Smetana that Czech national music came of age. Bohemian by birth, the son of a master-brewer in the service of Count Waldstein, he enjoyed an early education that allowed only intermittent attention to music. He was later able to support himself as a piano teacher in the house of a nobleman in Prague, while taking lessons privately, his aim, as he put it, to be a Liszt in piano technique and a Mozart in composition. He was involved in the abortive nationalist rising of 1848 and took refuge for a time in Sweden, before settling again in Bohemia after the Austrian defeat in 1859 by Napoleon III. His interest now centred on the new Provisional Theatre in Prague, where he became conductor in 1866 after earlier disappointment. His Czech opera The Brandenburgers in Bohemia, completed in 1863, was first performed there on 5th January, 1866. On 30th May the new opera The Bartered Bride followed, without dances in its first version. It was revised in 1869, when, among other additions, the Polka of Act II was included. Further revision followed, with the final version staged at the Provisional Theatre in September, 1870.
The Bartered Bride of the title, Marenka, is to marry the son of Tobias Micha, who turns out to be the simpleton Vasek. She already has a handsome lover, Jenik, who barters her away with the marriage-broker, agreeing, for a consideration, that Marenka should marry only a son of Micha. All complications are finally resolved when it turns out that Jenik, always aware of his own true identity, is Micha's long lost son. Vasek, meanwhile, has found his own delight in the circus dancer Esmeralda, and a role for himself playing the part of a performing bear in the circus. The opera opens with a sparkling Overture. The Polka and the Furiant, in the final version of the opera, provide dances for the villagers, while the so-called Dance of the Comedians introduces the travelling circus of Act III.
The symphonic poem Vltava (Moldau) is one of a cycle of six such works under the title Ma Vlast (My Fatherland), compositions that combine a geographical and patriotic survey of Bohemia. The River Vltava, the second of the whole cycle, completed in 1880, flows on with growing majesty, after the gentle ripples with which it begins, passing through the countryside, witness to the events of past history.
The principal viola-player in Smetana's Provisional Theatre orchestra was Antonín Dvorák, the son of a village butcher-cum-inn-keeper. As a composer he was to build a much securer reputation for himself internationally than
Smetana. With the encouragement of Brahms, he was able to devote himself principally to composition from 1871, when he left the orchestra. Although he had a continuing and absorbing interest in opera, it is chiefly for his instrumental compositions that he has been known abroad. His penultimate opera, Rusalka, described as a lyric fairy-tale, was completed in 1900 and first staged at what was now the Czech National Theatre in the following year. The story is a version of the legend of Undine, in which a water-spirit, Rusalka, falls in love with a mortal, who eventually, after at first deserting her, gives up his own life to join her in watery union. The Polonaise forms part of the second act wedding scene, which includes a ballet.
Dvorák wrote his Scherzo capriccioso in the spring of 1883. It is among his most successful works, composed at a time when his reputation had resulted in an invitation to London and an offer from Vienna for a German opera. The first he accepted in the following year, but he decided against Vienna, preferring to remain loyal to Bohemia and the cause of opera in the Czech language. The three Slavonic Rhapsodies, Opus 45, were written in 1878, the year of the first set of the popular Slavonic Dances. The second Rhapsody, in G minor, is an attractive work, containing, at its heart, a particularly charming waltz.
Leos Janácek spent the greater part of his life in his native province of Moravia, where he won a considerable local reputation for himself as a teacher and as a composer. It was not until 1916, when he was already 62, that he won wider fame, with the production of his opera Jenufa in Prague. There followed a remarkable series of six operas, the last completed in the year of his death, 1928. The five Moravian Dances for orchestra were arranged in 1889 and 1890 at a time when Janácek was immersed in the collection and study of Moravian folk-music, particularly from the north of the province, where he was born. This provided some distraction for him after the disappointment of his opera Sárka, where trouble had arisen over the unauthorised use of the libretto, after much of his own work had been completed.