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Otmar MÁCHA (b.1922)
Patria Bohemorum - The Land of the Czech Fathers (1989) [44.03]
Variations on the Theme and Death of Jan Rychlík (1964) [13.39]
Violin Concerto (1989) [19.47]
Jitka Soběhartová (sop)
Drahomíra Drobková (alto)
Vratislav Kříž (bar)
Ivan Ženatý (violin)

Czech Radio Chorus, Prague/Pavel Kühn
Czech Radio Symphony Orchestra, Prague/Michel Tabachnik; Vladimír Válek
rec. Czech Radio ADD/DDD
ARCO DIVA UP 0026-2 191 [77.48]

Otmar Mácha is one of the four composers who form the Quattro group. In addition to Mácha there is Sylvie Bodorová (b.1954), Luboš Fišer (1935-1999) and Zdenek Lukáš (b.1928).

He is a prolific composer with three symphoniettas, several oratorios (including The Legacy of Comenius, 1952-55), film scores, concertos written for Václav Hudeček, Josef Suk and Lubomir Brabec. Nora Grumlíková premiered his Double Concerto for violin and piano with pianist Jaroslav Kolář in 1976. He has written various operas including Infidelity Trapped, Lake Ukereve, Roses for Johanka, A Cradle for Sinning Damsels, The Prometheus Metamorphoses and Hateful Love. There are also string quartets and a work The Tears of the Saxophone.

He has been active in the campaign to restore Mahler's birthplace house at Kalištĕ near Humpolec in the Czech Republic and he wrote a choral piece (Welcome Home Mr Mahler) to mark the campaign. This was also inspired by the singing of Gabriela Beňačková.

Folk music from his native Moravia has made itself increasingly prominent in his works although it is not obviously on display in these three works. It can perhaps be more easily discerned in the full-length ballet Broučci (The Fireflies).

The Land of the Czech Fathers is an oratorio written to a libretto by Zdeňka Psůtková after the book by Vladislav Vančura. Vančura looks back to the origins and chimeric myths of the Czech nation. Potent symbols and characters are used and the music is elevated and serious. The nine episodes of the oratorio include a march of Slav tribes to their promised land while symbols and icons include the old matriarch and the image of the sacred tree embedded with arrows. The music is gruff, terror is never far away, there is a glow to the full-blooded singing (tr.3 2.48), the dies irae is used and there are anthracite-dark ostinati. Mácha is, in his espousal of grim fate, a descendant of Fibich in the Hippodamia quartet of melodramas. His language is not modernistic and highly singable. It is an amalgam of Brian (Fourth Symphony), Fricker's Vision of Judgement, Maurice Jacobson’s Hound of Heaven and Bloch's Avodath Hakodesh. Old Testament awe is in the air. The stridently protesting Jitka Soběhartová in tr.5 sings like a furious Luonnotar. In the long concluding chorus (tr.9) the apocalyptic tone of the singing of the words ‘Napravad, Napravad’ is memorable as is the long held note and resounding bell sounds. The work ends in elysian quiet with contented singing; the antithesis of revolutionary clamour.

The Richlík Variations mark the death of one of the pioneeers of avant-garde music in the then Czechoslovakia. It is more extreme than the oratorio. The Dies Irae is echoed in the flute at tr. 10. 1.28. Episodes include a swirling string meltdown of the type found in Josef Suk’s Asrael as well as a chipper chirping flute at 4.10 and the.30 ritual stamping dances evocative of The Rite of Spring (8.30). The music fades into a mildew and lichen. Woodwind and then violins twitter in what seems to be the last echoes of passing humanity.

The Violin Concerto preceded the oratorio by a year. The work has its Rózsa and Bloch touches with the skirl in the violins seeming very familiar. The soloist's long sinuous line is like a cross between Walton and Frankel. The music dreams in a wasteland of pained and stabbing memories as well as momentary consolation. The central presto is finished in just over three whirlingly active and blaring minutes. Tougher than the other two works this Concerto fully deserves its place alongside the Hartmann, Frankel and Berg concertos. It speaks of a troubled soul and of consolation without being at all sickly. Ženatý sounds like another Gidon Kremer in the febrile intensity he brings to the work.

Serious, sturdy, grave and moving music. I wonder if Arco Diva are considering another anthology of radio tapes. I certainly hope so. Many of us need to widen our knowledge of the Czech scene to take in the likes of Mácha, Bodorová, Kabelac, Fišer and Lukáš.

Rob Barnett

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