Smetana Piano Works

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Guest

Smetana Piano Works

  • (3) Polkas de Salon
  • (3) Polkas poétiques
  • (3) Polkas, E (B88)
  • (3) Polkas, G minor (B89)
  • (3) Polkas, A (B90)
  • (3) Polkas, F minor
  • (4) Souvenirs de Bohème en forme de polka

Smetana’s piano music has always counted among my most ardent musical enthusiasms, and I was thrilled to discover a pianist of Andras Schiff’s stature tackling a by-no-means predictable programme of polkas. The best-known pieces outside of the present recital are probably the four that make up the first series of Czech Dances (as recorded by Rudolf Firkusny and others). And yet, to study a polka like the E flat Allegro, tempo rubato from the Souvenirs of Bohemia in the form of Polkas, Op. 13 is to witness a blend of yearning chromaticism typical of the composer, with additional elements drawn from Chopin. The work was composed during Smetana’s Swedish sojourn and suggests aching homesickness expressed in musical terms. Op. 12 is similarly Chopinesque, though the expansive moderato second movement (the longest piece on the programme) has a folk-like melodic slant, harmonic richness and sense of narrative that are entirely Smetana’s own.
The three Salon (or ‘Drawing Room’) Polkas, Op. 7, dedicated to Smetana’s first wife, are among the most charming, especially the first piece. Much of this music was written in the wake of great loss (annotator Graham Melville-Mason suggests that the second of the three Poetic Polkas could reflect the illness and death of Smetana’s second daughter), though its cheerful demeanour spells courage and optimism. Perhaps the most immediately appealing piece on the disc is the delightful A major Polka that in some bizarre way anticipates the Waltz from Bernstein’s 1980 Divertimento.
Schiff’s programme is of varying levels of technical difficulty but the same interpretative virtues are common throughout, i.e. a marked liking for inner voices, a lilt to the rhythms (notably in the second Op. 13 piece), crisp fingerwork and a natural approach to rubato. Comparing Schiff to the excellent Jan Novotny on Supraphon (which programmes the majority of pieces included here) is interesting in that the Hungarian is more prone to employ colouristic effects, the Czech more likely to lay equal stresses on all voices (useful for underlining Smetana’s often sombre harmonies). Both players are masterful, though Schiff’s delicious brand of pianistic sorcery will probably win this music the largest audiences, and Teldec’s recording is marginally the better of the two.
It would be nice to think that Schiff might now offer us the two sets of Czech Dances or, even more desirable, Macbeth and the Witches, Dreams or the extraordinary piano tone-poem At the Ball (which opens like late Liszt, then suddenly bursts into yet another polka). But, in the meantime, the present programme will do very nicely. Strongly recommended.'

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