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Bedřich SMETANA (1824-1884)
Piano Works - vol. 5
Bagately a Impromptus (Bagatelles and Impromptus) (1844) [13:56]
Kvapíček (Galop) in D (?1831) [0:53]
Galopp di Bravoura (1840) [2:35]
Louisina Polka (1840) [4:06]
Jiřínková Polka (Georginen-Polka/Dahlia-Polka) (1840) [4:32]
Vzpomínka na Plzeň (Memory of Pilsen) (1843-44) [3:06]
Ze Studentského Života (From a Student's Life) (1842) [2:26]
Impromptu in E flat minor (1841) [6:55]
Impromptu in B minor (1841) [4:58]
Impromptu in A flat (1841-42) [3:35]
Mazurkové Capriccio (Mazurka-Capriccio) in C sharp minor (1843-44) [3:24]
Duo beze Slov (Duo without Words) (1842) [5:32]
Valčíky (Waltzes) (1844) [7:58]
Čtverylka (Quadrille) in F (1843) [7:24]
Čtverylka (Quadrille) in B flat (1843) [6:21]
Jiktka Čechová (piano)
rec. Martínek Studio, Prague, 26-28 February and 8-10 March 2011.
SUPRAPHON SU3845-2 [77:41]

Piano Works - vol. 6

Šest charakteristických Skladeb (Six Characteristic Pieces), op.1 (1847-48) [24:05]
Lesní City a Dojmy (Woodland Feelings and Impressions) (?1847/1883) [4:14]
Caprice in G minor (1848) [8:38]
Pensée Fugitive (1845) [3:14]
Lístky do Památníku (Album Leaves) (1844-62) [8:18]
Vzpomínka na Výmar (Memory of Weimar (1857) [1:43]
Allegro Capriccioso (1847-?48) [8:51]
Romanza in B flat (1847-?48/1883) [6:18]
Charakteristický Kus (Characteristic Piece) in C flat (1847-48) [3:43]
Dva Pochody (Two Marches) (1848) [7:12]
Jiktka Čechová (piano)
rec. Martínek Studio, Prague, 26-30 November and 17-19 December 2012.
SUPRAPHON SU3846-2 [76:17]

It is fair to say that, his Czech Dances aside, Smetana's piano music is justifiably overshadowed by his chamber, orchestral and operatic output, despite the fact that he was by all accounts a gifted performer. Jitka Čechová's surname appropriately translates as something like 'female Czech', and there is no doubt Smetana's music is in her blood, but for all her advocacy, volumes 5 and 6 of this 7-CD complete solo music cycle from Supraphon reiterate the message from previous discs, that Smetana's heart was only half in his piano writing (see reviews of Volume 3 and Volume 4).
 
Like previous instalments, volume 5 (released in 2011) is of minor interest to anyone other than the most devout of Smetana fans - of which there are admittedly many in the Czech Republic where Supraphon's market is doubtless strongest. Only the opening Bagatelles and Impromptus runs to any significant time, yet even this is really just a suite of simple mood pieces. 'Chopin-lite', or watered-down proto-Dvořák-of-the-Slavonic-Dances, are fair characterisations of much of Čechová's programme here. Smetana's own high approval of the Louisina Polka, as described in the notes, is hard to fathom.
 
None of which is to say that any of this is poor stuff - in fact, it is always melodious and as music to unwind to it has much to recommend it, not least Supraphon's good, solid audio and Čechová's attractively romantic pianism. The three standalone Impromptus, though only a pale shadow of Chopin's, do actually deserve any occasional airing they get on recordings or the concert stage. In fact they mark the beginning of the more interesting half of Čechová's recital - where the two Quadrilles and the more truly Chopinesque Mazurka-Capriccio are also owed an honourable mention. In fairness to Smetana, all the works featured here were composed while he was still a teenager.
 
Čechová is not really "part of the new generation of Czech musicians", as Supraphon claim - she was already in her thirties when she began this cycle in 2005. In fact, she brings a maturity to these recordings that is arguably more than the works on volume 5 merit. On the other hand, that same experience helps make a strong case for some of those on volume 6, where there is not a dance piece in sight. Smetana's op.1, the Six Characteristic Pieces, fully deserves its opus recognition, a collection of deeply atmospheric pieces dedicated to and applauded by Liszt. Other works - notably the restless Caprice in G minor, the turbulent Allegro Capriccioso and the lovely Romanza in B flat - reveal a composer still young but with a new-found maturity. It is quite likely no coincidence that nearly all the items on this disc date from 1848, a year of great political upheaval in Europe.
 
Supraphon have slipped far behind schedule on this project - their website still indicates a complete cycle by 2008. Nonetheless, of the first four volumes, only the third (SU 3843-2), courtesy of the two sets of Czech Dances, and perhaps the second (SU 3842-2) for Sny (Dreams), can be said to contain any really significant music. On the whole, the first five indeed are quite densely populated by standalone polkas and other short dance forms which, though undeniably pleasant and well crafted, are more for the easy listener than the serious one. Volume 6, on the other hand, reveals in parts the Smetana recognisable from beyond the keyboard, his eye and ear on a legacy of greater profundity rather than commerce.
 
The accompanying notes are in English, French and German in translation, besides the original Czech. Some of the translators are clearly non-natives, giving renditions that are at times a little shaky - "saloon music", "idiomatic singularities in the tectonics" - and which occasionally loose their grip on intelligibility: "[the] eight brief characteristic pieces [...] verge in tiny areas of the two- or three-part form on an original expression of a programme intention." The notes do in any case tend towards the rambling, typically Slavic phraseology finding itself unflattered by English word-for-word. On the other hand, they cover pretty much all the required ground. Both discs offer very generous timings, which partially offset Supraphon's higher retail pricing.
 
Byzantion
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