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Czech-ing Out Rare Piano Music

Things Lived and Dreamt Francine Kay, piano. Analekta AN2 9004 Total Time: 74:09 Recording: (*)***/**** Performance: ****/****

As the 20th Century began, a variety of musical “-isms” were in the air as composers began to explore expanded tonality through chromaticism and further inspired, in some instances, by wider exposure to world musics. In her new album, Things Lived and Dreamt, pianist Francine Kay invites us to ponder these differing blends of style as they appeared in the music of Czech composers. The repertoire includes some classic and familiar choices while also expanding outward to lesser known pieces increasing its attractiveness.

The most “modern” of the composers, or at least the one who carved out a more unique musical voice, is Leos Janacek (1854-1928). His works are filled with powerful emotional connections that hearken back to a Romantic era and style while also moving sonically toward less tertian harmonic constructions. In his powerful Sonata 1.X.1905, he infuses his own political frustrations into an intense work. The piece was written after the death of a civilian during a peaceful demonstration over the establishment of a second Czech university in Brno. Originally a three-movement work, Janacek burned the final movement before its premiere and subsequently tossed the other two into the river. However, the pianist that performed the work, Ludmila Tuckova, had made a copy of those two movements and was able to get Janacek to publish the work. The first “Con Moto” movement provides a flurry of technical displays against often stark harmony that shifts to a more Romantic remembrance. The second movement, “The Death”, is an emotional adagio with impassioned outbursts along the way. Kay’s performance of the first movement is quite breezy and the second movement is equally fine, though some pedaling decisions result in some moments not ringing out as much as they might. It is still an engrossing performance that makes a great case for the piece.

While Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) is perhaps the most famous of Czech composers, Josef Suk (1874-1935) is undoubtedly the successor of that thread of Romanticism. He was, after all, a student of the respected composers, and his son-in-law. His music would also shift into the more modernist trends but remain beautifully lyrical and it is this latter aspect that one hears in “Longing” from Spring, Op. 22 (1902) which was written after the birth of his son. The shift to more modernist trends began after the death of his wife in 1905 and can be heard explored well in his suite Things Lived and Dreamt, Op. 30 (1909). The ten-movement work features a variety of pieces inspired by his own thoughts and includes touches of impressionism, folk dance rhythms and melodic inflections, and rich lyrical melodic ideas (some quotations from his own and other’s work). There is even some interesting modernist dissonance that parallels Bartok’s style. It makes for a welcome discovery here in this engaging performance. Three of Dvorak’s Humoresques, Op. 101 (1894; nos. 4, 7, and, 8), in a way set the stage for the Suk suite they precede. Each has examples of lyrical melodies, technical flourishes, and folkish rhythmic material that serve as the echo of a time gone by that Suk’s piece then exhibits.

Also unique on this release is a rare performance of April Preludes, Op. 13 (1937), by Vitezslava Kapralova (1915-1940). She studied in Paris with Martinu, and the bled of bitonal writing with other French modernist styles can be heard in these works as well across the four preludes. The program closes with the popular “Polka” from Smetana’s (1824-1884) Czech Dances 1 JB 1:107 (1877) which serves as an encore to the program and a firm reminder of the rich heritage that developed from the 19th into the 20th century.

Analekta’s recording feels a bit dry at times but Kay’s rich and colorful playing overcome this for the most part. There is an intensity of emotion that shines through in these works, especially in the Janacek sonata and Suk suite. Attention to detail in the pieces here also makes them for more engaging listening. In the rapid passagework, there is a crispness and clarity to Kay’s approach that is aided by the acoustic and piano response as well. The release is an important addition to the discography of Czech piano music and worth tracking down!


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