Major New Naxos Series: Novák Orchestral Works 1

Review by: David Hurwitz


Artistic Quality: 9

Sound Quality: 8

Vítěslav Novák (1870-1949) was an important and highly accomplished composer. His reputation hovers on the margins of our musical consciousness, largely because there has been no systematic attempt to view his output whole. Hopefully this new series will remedy this deficit. It would be especially wonderful to see new recordings of his ballets, Nikotina especially. Stylistically, he might be thought of as a sort of Czech Delius. His music is heavily nature-inspired, often dreamy, although with more muscle than Delius’ (everyone has more muscle than Delius!), and of course a healthy dose of Slavic melody for good measure.

Still, his sophisticated, late romantic harmony and orchestration might take you by surprise, as in the South Bohemian Suite, which is much more than your typical pastiche of folk tunes. Its three large movements (plus Epilogue) pass by like some half-remembered landscape or historical pageant. The music is curiously elusive, its outlines blurred, with melodies that come and go out of a diaphanous textural fog. The third movement March of the Hussites has more than its share of genuine menace before the skies clear and the opening pastorale returns for the sunny conclusion.

Toman and the Wood Nymph is, not surprisingly, about a guy named Toman who meets a Wood Nymph. Fibich wrote a symphonic poem to the same story. The encounter isn’t a happy one: nymphs, in case you were wondering, aren’t benign spirits. They seek to entrap men with sex (gasp!) and falling under their spell inevitably leads to misery, if not outright death. All you need to know to get the point of the story is that there’s lots of atmospheric nature music, a very ominous sense of foreboding, an extremely voluptuous sex scene, and a darkly tragic conclusion. It’s juicy stuff, succulently performed here by Marek Štilec and the Moravian Philharmonic.

The same holds true of the South Bohemian Suite–lovely performances, warmly engineered. Naxos already has an excellent Novák disc from JoAnn Falletta that duplicates none of this repertoire, and I look forward to the systematic continuation of this series. I guarantee it will have some very pleasant surprises in store.

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