NOVÁK:  Lady Godiva Overture, Op. 41.  Toman and the Wood Nymph, Op. 40.  De profundis, Op. 67
BBC Philharmonic/Libor Pesek, cond.

CHANDOS 9821 (F) (DDD) TT:  66:22

Smetana, Dvorák, Janácek and Martinu—which shows the incredible richness of musical life in Czechoslovakia at the beginning of the 20th centur plus Vitezslav Novák. Novák studied composition with Dvorák, teaching at Prague Conservatory for more than three decades beginning in 1909. His stature in the musical community lessened with the appearance of innovative Leos Janácek, whose music made Novak's sound dated.  Novák enjoyed a close association with the Czech Philharmonic. He was resident conductor beginning in 1938 and for the 1950-51 season was principal conductor. Novak's moods of depression, even suicide, were intensified from 1939-1945 when the Germans invaded his beloved country. His love of nature is reflected in the many symphonic works he composed on the subject, particularly the symphonic poem In the Tatras (a mountain range near the Bohemian-Moravian border). 

Novák's music is fairly well represented in Schwann/Opus although some major performances have been deleted, in particular Karel Sejna's Czech Phil recordings of In the Tatras, Eternal Longing and  Moravian-Slovak Suite. Fortunately Novák's huge "sea fantasy" for soloists, mixed choruses and large orchestra, The Storm, is still available, a 1978 recording  with the Czech Phil, soloists and chorus directed by Zdenek Kosler (Supraphon SU 3088-2 211), highly recommended if you can take the squally sound of the Czech sopranos.

Lady Godiva Overture, Op. 41 was composed for the opening of a new theatre in 1907. Jaroslav Vrchlický chose Lady Godiva as the subject for his play focusing on her protest against tax laws imposed by her husband Leofric, Lord of Coventry. The CD notes state Novák has written a score of conflict and resolution, with portraits of both Leofric and Godiva, ending with the "triumph of the essentially feminine inner strength of Godiva."  It took only two days for Novák to write his score, which was premiered in 1907 with the Czech Phil conducted by Ladislav Celanský.  Since that time it has had life as a concert piece; it is difficult to imagine an audience sitting through a 17-minute overture preceding a play—even an overture as imaginative as this.  Novák was strongly influenced by Richard Strauss, evident in this seething score with its passionate outbursts and caressing idyllic interludes.  This is the only recording currently available of this worthy score.

Toman and the Wood Nymph, Op. 40 is a 26-minute symphonic poem composed about the same time as Godiva. Inspired by  Frantisek Celanský's legend, Novák in his music seeks to portray (with much success) "...the erotic portrayal of the destructive power of woman."  The legend is about the restless Toman who, in the context of Midsummer night, sets out in pursuit of his lover only to find she was in love with someone else after which he dies.  Again there are many outbursts of Straussian passion.

De profundis, Op. 67 is a much later work (1941), scored for large orchestra with piano and organ (although the piano is virtually inaudible). It was completed during the Nazi occupation and is "consecrated to the suffering of the Czech nation during the German reign of terror" (1939-1945).  Funereal rites are included, tragedy is the norm with a touch of hope and optimism culminating in the final pages, "Lift up your hearts."  There was a question of political prosecution during the premiere, considering the subject and the fact that Czech citizens were being murdered every day.

Czech conductor Libor Pesek leads the BBC Philharmonic on this superb Chandos CD. Pesek studied with some of the most prestigious conductors including Karel Ancerl and Václav Neumann.  Pesek is totally attuned to Czech music, the BBC Philharmonic is in top form, and Chandos' sonics are their very best.  If you enjoy orchestral works of Richard Strauss you'll surely also derive much pleasure from this CD.

R.E.B. (July 2000)