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Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb International, October 2004

"Dvorák’s solo piano music has never been entirely absent from the discography but it has had scant attention in the concert hall. From the days of Jan Herman in the 1920s and 1930s, whose Ultraphon records demand reissue – there were Czech pianists before Firkušny and Maxian and Herman set down four of the Humoresques, for instance – assiduous collectors could at least garner a selection. But apart from individual smatterings from native artists such as Knotková and Štepánek the return was small before the LP and the later arrival of the set by Radoslav Kvapil, which has been the Gold Standard for this body of work. It is therefore a matter for rejoicing that as this Naxos set is issued we hear that Regis is re-releasing Kvapil’s conspectus of Czech piano music in a set that includes some of these Dvorák sides.

But the Naxos set is complete and played by a pianist whose devotion to the literature is undoubted; more than that, it is frequently exuberant without becoming vulgar, rhythmically incisive without becoming insistent, and extrovert without overreaching itself. In short, though the recording locations and dates vary – about three fifths were recorded for German Radio over a four year period with the bulk being set down in 1995 and 1999 – there is no jarring of acoustic perspectives. All is consonance. A fine achievement, then and a necessary one for whilst not all the music is top drawer all deserves to be accessible in idiomatic and generous performances such as these. Comparison with Kvapil shows that he tends to be a marginal degree more poetic than Veselka, a young Norwegian pianist born of Czech pianists, but Veselka is utterly committed to the literature and a splendidly forthright guide to it.

I’m reviewing a set of five CDs in a slipcase but all are available singly. This isn’t a chronological survey so purchasers can cherry pick if they want but it’s tough to know where to start and what to pass over. Many of these works were commissions for societies or balls, some were gifts to friends, written for publication in piano collections, whilst others remained unpublished during the composer’s lifetimes (such as the Four Eclogues and some of the Six Pieces). Volume One gives us the rather generic Two Minuets, of which the second is bolder and more athletic and the repetitive but oddly affecting D minor Dumka. The Theme with Variations is the heart of this disc, a well-wrought and imaginatively colourful work that should be played far more than it is. Veselka’s playing of the first variation is particularly astute and he marshals the variations with considerable intelligence. The Album Leaves are nostalgic – the first is distinctly Chopinesque – and the Eight Waltzes, which date from 1880 have lashes of vitality and charm (especially the Allegro con fuoco, No.2) and a fine kind of nobility in the rolled chords of No.5.

The second disc replicates the curve of the first but instead of Two Minuets we have two Furiants, altogether more bracing pieces – notable for the sensitivity of Veselka’s diminuendi in the first and the Lisztian moments that course through the second. Of the four Eclogues the third, No.3, a Moderato in G major, is at once the most puzzling and interesting, with its delicacy and fast passagework and its rather Beethovenian cast. There are four Compositions without title and again it’s the third that catches the ear, one that sounds like a pure improvisation; clearly it’s not but it has the fluid ease of something off the cuff. The Six Pieces Op.52 owe allegiance to Schumann; the fourth, an Eclogue, is ripely romantic and the concluding March resonates to the Davidsbündler. In the third of the set we have more of the trademark Furiants and Dumkas but the heart is the hour long Poetic Tone Pictures, one of Dvorák’s great works for solo piano. Written in 1885 it comprises thirteen pieces, somewhat diffuse maybe in overall effect but strong on dance rhythms and a sense of emotive depth. The superscriptions are again somewhat Schumannesque but this time the methodology is entirely Dvorákian, from the bell-like treble clarity of On the Road at Night, through the evocative eeriness and rolled chord romance of At the Old Castle (nothing Mussourgskian about this) through the wistfulness of the central Reverie, the beautiful Serenade (it’s too long but one can understand Dvorák’s reluctance to let go) to the nobly spacious conclusion.

We are on slightly better trod ground with Volume Four. The Humoresques are here (including that one) but you certainly won’t know many. The first is a driving flair filled affair, the third shows a deliciously deadpan humour, the fifth is buoyant in rhythm and the seventh, everyone’s favourite, is here enlivened by some teasing rubati. The Humoresques were in fact his last important work for solo piano and post date composition of the Ninth Symphony. Much earlier he’d written the Six Mazurkas (originally Six Scottish Dances, which gives one pause for thought). Even more than the more vivacious ones the B flat major shows what can be done with limpid lyricism; succeeding it is a D minor seemingly sunk in gravity of an almost religious kind and the final Mazurka would work very well for violin – perhaps it already has. Silhouettes (there are twelve altogether) share something thematically with the song cycle Cypresses and the earliest two symphonies. Short, persuasive and idiomatic, it’s the Presto in F sharp minor with its animated sections answered by calls in the treble that most refreshingly catches the ear.

The final volume brings fare both familiar – the American Suite in its original guise for piano (it’s better known orchestrally) and some Op. posthumous and other morceaux. The Impromptu B129 wears an especially serious middle section, not unrelated perhaps to the fact that it was written fairly shortly after the death of his mother. Neatly this disc draws together Dvorák’s earliest known work for piano, the 1860 Polka and his last, the 1894 Lullaby and Capriccio. It offers short value at 38 minutes but completeness is all in a set of this kind.

Fine performances then of seldom heard repertoire. Recording quality is generally excellent. Sometimes radio sourced material can be cold and brittle but not here; if anything some close miking means that we get a vigorous appreciation of Veselka’s playing – try the first of the Eight Humoresques if you’re unsure. It wouldn’t be true to say that there are many masterpieces here – but this is a body of work that deserves revaluation and pianists will want to acquaint themselves with some valuable opportunities to spice up their jaded repertoires. Listeners will need no second invitation."

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