Encore: Oldrich Korte and one of the great piano sonatas of the 20th century

Oldrich Korte

Even if he had never written another work in his life, the Czech composer Oldrich Korte would deserve immortality for his Sonata for Piano. The piece was composed between 1951 and 1953 when Korte was still in his mid-twenties and virtually unknown. Today it is recognised as one of the great piano sonatas of the 20th century and is a particular favourite of Korte's long-standing friend, the American pianist, Garrick Ohlsson, who has helped to carry its fame abroad.

Oldrich Korte
The sonata is special in several respects, not least because of the ways it reflects Korte's extraordinary life over the troubled years of communist rule. His biography reads like an adventure story, including episodes as a fireman, building worker and truck driver, when he refused to compromise with the regime. During the thaw of the 1960s he appeared in over 3,000 performances over four continents as a soloist with the celebrated Magic Lantern troupe, which is still going strong with its original show blending stage and film action. Now 80, Oldrich Korte is still full of energy, and Patricia Goodson caught up with him at his flat in Prague's Vinohrady district, to talk about his work and about the Piano Sonata in particular. He started by telling her why it is so hard to categorise him as a composer.

OK: "I try to make music that will be timeless. Practically I am not part of any avant-garde. I have seen that nobody asks today if Mendelssohn, Brahms, Dvorak or Tchaikovsky were modern. They were not. For that reason I refuse to ignore tonality, I refuse to write music without melody, without rhythm. These are constant values."

PG: "And I think one thing I really enjoy in your Piano Sonata is that it has one thing that is very rare in modern music. Part of it is very joyful-sounding. It is happy. I'm not sure what would be the right adjective, but that's such a rare quality in contemporary music. You get a lot of angst and difficulty and storm-and-stress, but you don't get anything that is ebullient and sunny, and you have that in the first movement of your sonata."

OK: "It is interesting that you say it. I composed the second movement of the sonata first, which is very dramatic and also tragic. When it was finished I recognized that it is not possible to begin this way, and that's the reason why I sought something that would contrast to the second movement which follows. I sought something that was bright but not tragic. It must be balanced."

PG: "And so the second movement came from a very moving personal experience that you had, overhearing the dying words of a very ill man."

OK: "Yes, it is true. It is an inspiring moment. Of course, I did not want to write music that describes the experience, but it was inspiring me. It was a very strong experience with a dying man, who sang. Then always he was in some dream and again and again came to the same rhythm and melody of his - it was not a song - a very short chant. As I understood his singing had always the same sense. He prepared himself for death, but not tragically. He felt it like his duty. He helped me also that the somewhat tragic melody and rhythm at the beginning was transcending more and more to the dramatic but firm form, with a triumphal finale, a triumphal end."

PG: "I think that what is also important about this piece for you is that it helped you get through a difficult time in the 1950s, when, life was very hard here in the Czech Republic. So maybe this also helped you."

OK: "Yes. It can be said this way. You know, practically at the time I tried to separate my self as much as I could from all reality around. I was living in solitude in South Bohemia in a wood, and it was probably the only way I could survive, if it was not possible to emigrate. I had many difficulties with normal life. It was a life full of conflict with the official people of the regime. So such a thing as this was very important for me, and I can say that the sonata brought me for a certain time some liberation."

Oldrich Korte and Patricia Goodson
PG: "I think it is certainly one of the great sonatas of the 20th century, a great legacy. Can you tell me a little bit about the premiere of this work in the Rudolfinum in the mid 1950s?"

OK: "When I came it was announced that, 'We are sorry but the sonata will not be played, because the performer of the sonata, Josef Hala, was sent to Moscow - it was a very important thing.' And it was announced to the audience. I felt that this is a fateful moment of my life. I said to the audience, 'No, I will play it myself,' and I must say it was one of greatest and most celebrated days of my life."

CDs reviewed in this programme are provided by Siroky Dvur