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8.553137 - DVORAK: Four-Hand Piano Music, Vol. 1
Antonin Dvorak (1841 - 1904)
Piano Works for Four Hands Vol. 1
In the 1860s Dvorak played Smetana's music. In the 1870s Smetana conducted Dvorak's. Between them the two men -the elder the spiritual protege of Liszt, the younger championed by Brahms - encapsulated the Czech nationalist movement of the nineteenth century. "In Smetana's operas and symphonic poems," considered the critic Max Graf fifty years ago, "the Vltava rushes, the forests of Bohemia rustle, peasants dance, the old kings march to their castle high above the river accompanied by mail-clad knights, water nymphs float like the fogs of moonlit evenings, Hussites sing their chorales. In Dvorak's music peasants dance around the maypole and old crones tell old tales... armories in the Czech nation's struggle for political independence" - a struggle only won in 1918, after Dvorak's death. "National music", Dvorak told Harper's Magazine in February 1895, "is not created out of nothing. It is discovered and clothed in new beauty, just as the myths and the legends of a people are brought to light and crystallised in undying verse by the master poets. All that is needed is a delicate ear, a retentive memory, and the power to weld the fragments of former ages together in one harmonious whole... The music of the people, sooner or later, will command attention and creep into the books of composers". "To Brahms," Alfred Einstein maintained in Music in the Romantic Era (1947), the peasant Dvorak, sometimes village butcher's apprentice, "must have seemed almost the ideal musician, which Brahms himself was prevented from becoming through his being too heavily burdened with the past... Dvorak took over the heritage of absolute music quite naively, and filled its forms with an elemental music of the freshest invention, the liveliest rhythm, the finest sense of sonority -it is the most full-blooded, direct music conceivable, without its becoming vulgar . He drew always from the sources of Slavic folk dance and folk song, much as Brahms had drawn from those of German; the only difference was that with Dvorak everything was childlike and fresh, whereas with Brahms there was always an overtone of yearning or mystical reverence".
Dvorak included Mozart and Beethoven among his classical heroes. But it was with the folk-loving Haydn and the song and dance spontaneity of Schubert that he most comfortably identified, especially admiring the Slavic thread of the latter's solo and duet music for piano. Calling more for honest musicality than virtuoso technique, his own small duet output -principally the present works, a couple of arrangements and the famous Slavonic Dances (Naxos 8.553138) - is directly in the Schubert domestic tradition.
Completely Czech in spirit, "an intimate and more serious counterpart to the Slavonic Dances" (Otakar Sourek, 1944/46), the ten Legends were completed between 30th December 1880 and 22nd March 1881. Dvorak later orchestrated them (NAXOS 8.550266/7). "Perhaps this is the loveliest... perhaps another - for on this point there will be different opinions, but only within one general verdict - that all are lovely!" wrote Eduard Hanslick, their dedicatée. "Please give my kind regards to Dvorak and tell him what pleasure his Legends continue to give me. It is a charming work and one cannot but envy the man his fresh, gay and fertile imagination," enthused Brahms to Simrock in Berlin (8th August, 1881). As with the Slavonic Dances, there are no descriptive titles: in this respect they inhabit that world of the miniaturistic romantic character-piece epitomised by the Mendelssohn Songs without Words or the Brahms Ballades. If they were ever meant to be programmatic, we can only guess at the inspiration. "They are rather more in the style," John Clapham has suggested (1966), "of ...mood pictures, idylls and dances of the people, free flights of the composer's imagination on a limited time scale".
The first Legend is a dance-like rondo, faintly archaic; the second (according to Sourek) may possibly be suggestive of "chaste meditative resignation ...cries of anguish ...quiet inner joy and mystic exultation". The third is an idyll contrasted by playful giusto dance images; the fourth, in the dumka spirit of a solemn march with livelier contrasts, is "crowned ...by the softly glowing halo of the saint and hero"; while the fifth "calls to mind the sweet and delicately tinted portrait of a female saint". "More romantically serious and restless", the sixth Legend is memorable for its D flat recollection of the slow movement climax from the Wagnerian Third Symphony of 1873, "descending as from mystic heights". The seventh and eighth are restful; the ninth an intimate sousedská or Bohemian minuet founded almost entirely on a single sustained pedal note (D) functioning like a rustic bagpipe drone (same- key Czech Suite/Brahms First Serenade/Haydn London Symphony style). The tenth closes the cycle "on a note of bitter-sweet reflection ...full of tender feeling and ...humble submission to a higher will".
Conceived on woodland walks between the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies, the collection From the Bohemian Forest (autumn 1883 - 12th January 1884) was left un-orchestrated - though some years after Dvorak effectively transcribed the lyrically Lisztian fifth movement, "Silent Woods", for cello and piano, subsequently (in America) arranging it for cello and orchestra. The titles were added later, from which we might infer that the music may not always necessarily mirror the descriptive/programmatic sentiment attributed to it. More than one commentator, for instance, has observed on how little the Satanic powers of darkness and Walpurgis Night seem to be reflected in the lively dance strains of the third tableau (thematically anticipating the A major Piano Quintet). The last movement quotes from the scherzo of the Fourth Symphony.
© 1996 Ates Orga
Piano Duo Silke-Thora Matthies and Christian Köhn
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