By Matt Goodrich
For the Nov 4, 2018 concert

Czech pianist Lukáš Vondráček launches the 2018-2019 COPI Steinway Piano Series with an attractive set of works by three composers from his homeland: Vítězslav Novák (1870-1949), Josef Suk (1874-1935), and Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884). As Bohemia was part of the Austrian Empire, its musicians were well connected to the main line of European classical music. Czech composers, especially guided by Antonín Dvořák and Bedřich Smetana, infused this with melodic spontaneity and harmonic unaffectedness, incorporating traces of native folk melodies and popular dance rhythms to create a fresh and insouciant musical language.

Vítězslav Novák took up the nationalist baton through his studies with Dvořák and acquaintance with Moravian and Slovakian folk music, combining these elements with classic musical forms, textures, and expression. His Memories (1894), in three sections, evokes romantic piano writing tinged with the contours and rhythms of folk music. The opening “Triste” sings of nostalgic longing, the centerpiece “Inquieto” describes a sense of agitated emotional turmoil, and the “Amoroso” concludes his reminiscence with delicate flowerings of serenity infused with moments of passion. 

Josef Suk’s early piano works are often diminutive yet beautifully fashioned, capturing the Czech spirit found in the music of Dvořák, his teacher and father-in-law. His Six Piano Pieces Op. 7 are lushly emotional and romantic character pieces that portray his courtship and marriage to Dvořák’s daughter Otilie. The first, “Love Song,” written in 1893, is a heartfelt declaration of requited love. The music develops from a lyrical beginning to fervent radiance, then returns to dreaminess. The piece was extremely popular and subsequently transcribed for many other instrumental combinations, and the composer reused its theme in several later works. 

Bedřich Smetana, known for proud, colorful orchestral works such as The Moldau, was one of the first composers interested in nationalist expression, seeking with other Czech artists to establish a national school. A fine pianist, he admired Liszt and Chopin for their keyboard technique as well as their expression of homeland cultural heritage in music. Characteristics from folk song and dance fill his lively, tuneful Czech Dances (1877-1879), of which Vondráček presents four from Book Two. These are virtuosic pieces, displaying both a strong national flavor and a cosmopolitan, dazzling pianism. 

Robert Schumann, one of the most important Romantic composers for the piano, was in young adulthood based in Leipzig, where he studied with Friedrich Wieck, father of the composer’s future wife Clara and vehemently opposed to their courtship. In 1838, in his late 20s, despairing over the situation with Clara and seeking a professional outlet for his compositions and music journal, Schumann moved to Vienna. The Vienna chapter, although marked by personal and 

professional frustration, was not entirely unproductive. Responding to those who seemed most drawn to his music, he created works of charm and grace, writing in what he called a “lighter and more feminine” style. The Arabesque in C major, to be played “lightly and caressingly,” is one such work. Arabesque suggests the curvaceous, flowing lines of the tender opening melody. Schumann’s warmhearted work alternates this theme with two contrasting episodes of more yearning music—one a flowing song, the other almost a march. Permeated throughout with longing and elegance, the piece concludes with an exquisite postlude, a meditation on a lovely, wistful dream. 

The literary-inclined Schumann included all sorts of extramusical references and even puzzles in his early piano works. His Carnaval (1835) showcases his musical and personal realms in a “masked ball” of character pieces and musical portraits. These were cleverly constructed from motifs derived from the letters of the name of the town (Asch) his then-fiancée—Wieck’s piano student Ernestine von Fricken—hailed from. Following the opening “Préambule” that sets the ball in motion, we experience a dazzling carnival-parade of adroit portrayals including performer-composers

“Chopin” (represented by a lyrical Nocturne) and “Paganini” (which imitates virtuoso violin gestures); the two aspects of Schumann’s musical personality—fiery “Florestan” and dreamy “Eusebius”; his fiancée Ernestine (“Estrella”) and the woman he actually married, Clara (“Chiarina”—an ardent waltz); and the commedia dell’arte clowns “Pierrot,” “Arlequin,” and “Pantalon and Columbine.” The concluding “March of the Davidsbündler against the Philistines” depicts the Davidsbünd, an imaginary progressive and refined musical cadre Schumann summoned to crush the reactionary Philistines, represented by the German “Grandfather’s Song.” Carnaval, a musical kaleidoscope revealing myriad facets of Schumann’s spiritual world, is one of the most colorful, inventive, and beloved works in the entire piano repertoire—a fantastic way to close our first program of the new COPI season.