Encore: The Bohemian Bach, Smetana in Sweden and the legendary Vaclav Talich

In Encore this week we look at a new recording of the "Bohemian Bach"; we also review a recording of Smetana's piano music, composed during his time in Sweden, and a CD of the legendary Vaclav Talich with the Czech Philharmonic.

A new CD of the 'Bohemian Bach'

Bohuslav Matej Cernohorsky,  photo: CTK
We start today with a Czech composer who, despite being known as the "Bohemian Bach" is virtually forgotten. His name is Bohuslav Matej Cernohorsky, a Minorite priest whose exact date of birth is not known. What we do know is that he was born very close to Bach, probably around 1684.

The comparison with Bach is a bit of a stretch since very little of his music has survived, making it hard to judge, but evidently, he was, like Bach, an incredible improviser on the organ, and considered a great master of music. In fact, he was given the honorary title of 'mistr' or master in Prague.

We can only speculate as to why he left so little music. It may be partly because he was a Catholic priest living at least for part of his life in a cloistered community, By contrast Bach was a Lutheran cantor, a prestigious, very public position which required a great output of music for church services, ceremonies, and teaching. Cernohorsky was mainly an organist, and because of his tremendous facility, he could improvise magnificent fugues on the spot.

This probably explains why so little remains. Why bother to write them down? He simply did not need to. It is hard to imagine improvising a fugue, but here in Prague, there is at least one organist, Michal Novenko, who does it with ease. If you ever go to the Anglican Church service here, you can hear him. He will take the tune of the final hymn and build it into a huge towering, musical structure. It is really overwhelming. It is unlikely that he would want to go back and slog through writing it down.

Like many Bohemian composers, Cernohorsky left his native land, going in his case to Italy, and spending most of his life there. We do not know much about him, but we do know that he did not get on well with his superiors in Prague, so both sides seemed to be happy when he went abroad.

There is a new CD featuring his music on the Arta label, called Laudetur Jesus Christus.

Smetana's early piano work from his days in Sweden

Leaping ahead to another Bohemian composer who had to go abroad, at least for a time, in order to make his way in the world, we turn now to music by Bedrich Smetana.

He lived for several years as a young man in Goteborg, Sweden, where in fact his musical gifts, chiefly as a piano player, brought him great success, both professionally and socially.

A selection of some of his lesser-known piano works from these early days is available on a new CD, performed by the Czech pianist Jitka Cechova, on the Supraphon label. In those days, that is the mid-1800s, virtuosi were all the rage, and highly sought after for events in wealthy private homes.

A hostess could score social points by having a famous artist perform in her home and the players in turn sought to outdo one another because contacts made in these salons could open the way to wider fame and success. They not only had to have fabulous technique, but were expected to compose or improvise their own music.

This led to a whole ocean of mediocre so-called salon music, which is either full of empty technical display or dripping in fashionable sentiment. But the great composers wrote some very good music in this genre, and the young Smetana certainly aspired to greatness. He wrote in his diary that he wanted to be a Liszt in piano technique and a Mozart in composition. And judging by some of the pieces on the CD, like the concert-etude 'On the Seashore', he did manage to perform and compose like Liszt in some cases.

Not all of the music on this CD is so virtuosic. Shorter lyrical pieces were also in demand in the salons and concert halls of the day. Often they were dedicated to young ladies, often piano students or wives of influential men. It is funny to read the list of Smetana's polkas, for example. There is a Georgina Polka, an Elisabeth Polka, a Maria Polka, a Catherine Polka, and a Bettina polka (Bettina he later married). We'll listen to part of one now, from his collection 'Souvenirs de Boheme en forme de polka'

Vintage recordings of Vaclav Talich conducting the Czech Philharmonic

Now let's turn to another new disk, part of a new Supraphon series dedicated to the art of the great conductor Vaclav Talich, who built the Czech Philharmonic into a world-class ensemble in the interwar period.

He is another one who had to leave the Czech lands in order to launch his career. He worked in Odessa, Tbilisi, and Ljubliana before becoming chief conductor of the Czech Philharmonic in 1919.

This series is projected to have 17 recordings, which will be released though 2007, so there is much to look forward to.

Today we'll focus on the music by Suk and Novak, both of whom were personal friends of Talich, and for whose music he had a special affinity. The recording includes Suk's Pohadka suite called the 'True Love of Raduz and Mahulena'. This was recorded in 1948, so the sound quality is somewhat compromised, but the lovely sheen of the orchestra's sound comes right through, as does the now sadly old-fashioned sweetly rounded tone of the solo violin.

The recording also includes Vitezslav Novak's Slovacka Svita, which musically depicts one day in the life of a village on the Moravian-Slovak border. This too is a delightful recording.

CDs reviewed in this programme are provided by Siroky Dvur