About this Recording
8.553138 - DVORAK: Four-Hand Piano Music, Vol. 2

Antonin Dvorak (1841 - 1904)

Slavonic Dances, Op. 46, B. 78
Slavonic Dances, Op. 72, B. 145

Czech music from before and after the French Revolution is a story of eighteenth century exodus and nineteenth century return. Of classical ascendance and national rebirth. Of old guard conservatives resisting new blood radicals. Of the many who left in search of other, more economically rewarding pastures, Vienna, Paris, Berlin or London. Of the few who, in trying to bridge the divide, never left. Of the ongoing conflict and tension between the language and culture of the ruling Hapsburg aristocracy (German) and the vernacular and custom of the people (Czech). Fired by the European insurrections of 1830 and 1848-49, Czech romantic nationalism was about the rhythm, colour and sound of Czech life, Czech history, Czech speech, Czech landscape, Czech feeling. VoriSek and Skroup pointed the way. Smetana laid the road. Dvorak illuminated it. Janacek and Suk triumphed in its glory.

A self-confessed "simple Czech musician" born in the valley of the Vltava north of Prague, Dvorak was a man of rugged, God-fearing peasant stock. He owed his early success principally to Brahms, who wrote to his Berlin publisher, Fritz Simrock, "I have been receiving a lot of pleasure for several years from the work of Anton Dvorak of Prague ...He is certainly a very talented fellow. And incidentally, poor, I beg you to consider that!" (12th December 1877). Sirnrock, a shrewd businessman, took note.

The dance was fundamental to Dvorak's life. It permeated his work, from opera and symphony to quartet and piano piece. In a biographical sketch (November 1942), Viktor Fischl evocatively reminds us how the corn fields and vineyards of Dvorak's birth-place were an especially "songful corner of the earth. The ploughman sang as he followed his plough, the smith at work beat out his music on the ringing anvil, songs were sung to the rhythm of the threshing, and on Sundays the lads gathered at the Dvorak's inn, where the village band played for their dancing, At the age of nine the innkeeper's little son, Antonin, joined the band with [his] small fiddle ..." On leaving the Prague Organ School in 1859 Dvorak joined the Karel Komzak Dance Band, providing music three times a week for the more fashionable Prague inns and restaurants. Subsequently, as principal violist for nine years of the orchestra of the new Provisional Theatre (opened 18th November 1862, specifically for the production of Czech language opera and drama), he played under Smetana in the first performances of The Brandenburgers of Bohemia and The Bartered Bride - fiercely patriotic music, the regional song and folk-dance inflexions of which he can scarcely have missed. At a time of dark Germanic oppression, the 1860s were a time of strong partisan feeling for the Czechs.

Although best known in their later orchestrations (Naxos 8.550143), the two books of Slavonic Dances (sixteen numbers in all) were originally written for piano four hands. In this guise -offering rewarding, not unduly-taxing parts - they stand with the duets of Schubert and Brahms. Both sets were commissioned by Sirnrock, who wanted Dvorak to write something along the lines and financial success of Brahms's Hungarian Dances (the first two volumes of which had appeared in 1860). The first - vivacious, melodic, ardent - was completed between 18th March and 7th May 1878 (Dvorak having spent the previous summer with Janacek on a walking holiday through Bohemia); the second - of more seriousness and reflective pathos - between early June and 9th July 1886 (in between spells of gardening and forest rambles). The first, overnight, made Dvorak rich and famous. "Here at last is a one hundred percent talent, and what is more a completely natural talent", reviewed the influential Ludwig Ehlert in the Berlin Nationalzeitung (15th November 1878). " A heavenly naturalness flows through this music... Not a trace of artificiality or constraint... Whoever finds a jewel on the public highway is under obligation to report his find".

Unlike Brahms (who quoted directly from popular sources), Dvorak, in the manner of Smetana, fashioned largely independent, lyrical/heroic/autobiographical stylisations of the dance spirit, cross-fertilising the dialects and rhythms of the nationally suppressed Slavonic lands to create cameos of local imagery and colour entirely of his own making. That many familiar rustic forms and fusions were to underpin his fantasy, however, is apparent from the numerous references throughout to the Bohemian furiant, dumka, polka, klavotlik, skocnli, sousedská (quasi minuet), vrták, minet, starodavny and spasírka; the Slovakian odzmek; the Moravian tetka and kvapik (galop); the Polish mazurka and polonaise; the Silesian mazur; the "round" dances (kola) of Serbia; and the "walking", "leaping" and "couple" dances of Moravia, Slovakia, Silesia, Poland, Lusatia and the Ukraine. Otakar Sourek, the Prague critic, once ventured to classify each dance exactly: furiant (Nos 1 & 8); dumka (Nos 2, 10, 12); polka (No 3); sousedskli (Nos 4, 6, 16); skocnli (Nos 5, 7, 11); odzmek (No 9); spacirka (No 13); polonaise (No 14); kola (No 15). Dvorak knew better. He left them untitled, sensing perhaps that what he had created were, after all, not so much restrictive dance types as freely flighted dance poems, as spirit catching as the sepia photographs of an old book.

Asked in 1941, the centenary of Dvorak's birth, what the Slavonic Dances represented, Vaclav Talich, the then legendary chief conductor of the Czech Philharmonic, replied: "In the old [First World War/1918 Czech Independence] days I regarded [them] as real dances - physical, flesh-and-blood dances... [But then (under the Third Reich) they] became transformed into a symbol [as patriotically charged as Smetana's Ma vlast]: no longer did their rhythms sway the body alone, but the spirit also was lifted on their waves; they ceased to provide sheer entertainment and became transmuted into a voice, openly demonstrating how our people sing and how they weep, how they rejoice and how they contemplate, how they suffer and how they have faith. No, Dvorak has not given us Slavonic dances, rather the Czech people through his medium have sung out the rhythm of their lives in that inexhaustible wealth of nuance, of which only [he], with his pure and creative soul, was truly capable".

© 1996 Ates Orga

Piano Duo Silke-Thora Matthies and Christian Köhn
The pianists Silke-Thora Matthies and Christian Köhn, both with individual solo careers, came together in 1986 to form a piano duo. Silke-Thora Matthies was born in Gütersloh and studied in Detmold and at the New York Juilliard School, winning first prize at the New York Gina Bachauer Competition and further awards in the Budapest Liszt-Bartók Competition, the Bordeaux Jeunes solistes and the Cleveland, Ohio, Robert Casadesus Competition. She has recorded music ranging from Scarlatti to the contemporary and appeared as a soloist and recitalist in Germany and abroad. Christian Köhn was born in Bochum and studied in Dortmund and in Detmold, winning prizes in the Hamburg Steinway Piano Competition, the Dortmund International Schubert Competition, with awards from the Hamburg Oscar-und-Vera- Ritter-Stiftung and the Bonn German Music Competition. His career has also taken him as soloist and recitalist to various countries of Europe and the Near East. As a duo the two players have won wide acclaim, with international prizes, and appearances in recital and as soloists. They have broadcast regularly and have been responsible for a number of first performances of music by notable contemporary composers.

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