An Expedition into Czech Piano Music

Products featured here are selected for review by ANDREW EALES

Here’s an interesting idea – and a superb collection of music!

German music publisher Bärenreiter have had offices in Prague since 1991, and have done more than any other publisher to champion Czech music.

For their new Expedition into Czech Piano Music collection they have worked with leading Czech pianist and educator Ivo Kahánek to produce a collection of 21 solo piano pieces composed from the 18th to 20th centuries, including representative music by 15 composers.

Though rather ambitiously billed as being for “early intermediate pianists” (and such definitions are always loose), I would suggest the pieces here would suit later intermediate to advanced players, from around UK Grades 4-8, several pieces having appeared in the higher grades.

Let’s go exploring…

Discovering Czech Treasures

Ivo Kahánek tells us in his short introduction,

“Czech music is highly valued throughout the world and is even regarded as something of a phenomenon. In contrast, the piano works of Czech composers are not widely known beyond the borders of the Czech Republic and are mostly performed at concerts as occasional rarities. And yet this piano literature is immensely rich, diverse, and beautiful. I would wish for it to become a standard part of piano repertoire, both for students and for professionals. I have thus attempted to create a concise yet representative selection that presents Czech piano compositions from the second half of the eighteenth century to the present day. Besides the great names of Czech music, lesser-known figures are included as well, some of whom are certain to surprise or delight many a pianist.”

Here is the list of composers and pieces Kahánek has included:

  • Sonatina III in A minor [Benda, Jirí Antonín]
  • Chansonette [Dusík, Jan Ladislav]
  • Rondo in G major [Voríšek, Jan Vaclav Hugo]
  • Friendly Landscape [Smetana, Bedrich]
  • Souvenir [Smetana, Bedrich]
  • Polka in G minor [Smetana, Bedrich]
  • Humoresque in G-flat major [Dvorák, Antonín]
  • Goblins’ Dance [Dvorák, Antonín]
  • Reminiscence [Fibich, Zdenek]
  • Idylls [Suk, Josef]
  • Devil’s Polka [Novák, Vítezslav]
  • The Frýdek Madonna [Janácek, Leoš]
  • The Barn Owl has not Flown Anway! [Janácek, Leo]
  • Come with us! [Janácek, Leo]
  • Colombine Dances [Martinu, Bohuslav]
  • Harlequin [Martinu, Bohuslav]
  • Study in Sixths [Vrestál, Jirí]
  • Preludio ostinato [Kabelác, Miloslav]
  • Bells before the Lights go out [Eben, Petr]
  • Bagatelle No. 2 [Dlouhý, Milan]
  • Swans [Sluka, Luboš]

This wonderful mixture of chronologically organised pieces is certainly an enticing blend of the famous and the obscure.

Experienced pianists and teachers will undoubtedly be familiar with Dvořák’s evergreen “salon” favourite Humoresque in G flat major, while the Janáček, Martinů and Benda pieces are all previous exam favourites, and often found in piano anthologies. Many names here are likely to be entirely new to most players, though.

Looking deeper and picking out a few of the many highlights, the beautiful Chansonette by Jan Ladislav Dusík (1760-1812, better known as Dussek) is one of those pieces which reveals how forward-looking this near contemporary of Mozart was, as Romantic in tone as music written two decades later. A sublime discovery.

Though best known for his orchestral masterpiece Má vlast and opera The Bartered Bride, Bedřich Smetana (1824-84) left a significant body of wonderful solo piano music, with a range that encompassed both “salon” and concert pieces combining the influences of Schumann, Liszt and Chopin with the emerging traits of nationalism and Wagnerian chromaticism. His three pieces included here are among the more technically difficult in the book, but are superb examples of his art and deserve to be hugely popular.

Zdeněk Fibich (1850-1900) was undoubtedly one of the great piano miniaturists of the nineteenth century, but was severely under-appreciated even in his day. I would have loved to see his popular Poeme here, but welcome the included piece from his epic cycle Moods, Impressions and Reminiscences (which comprises an astonishing 374 miniatures, on which note I would have welcomed the opus number for identification of this one).

Fibich’s piece really needs large hands, and a decent stretch is also an asset for the two Idylls of Josef Suk (1874-1935), attractive pieces hitherto unknown to me, while the Devil’s Polka by Vítězslav Novák (1870-1949) is as tremendously difficult to play as it is darkly comic.

Returning to the more manageable, the Leoš Janáček (1854-1928) pieces all come from On an Overgrown Path and have appeared in Grade 7 and 8 syllabi. These fabulously evocative musical snapshots would be a highlight in any anthology; here they shine, and will hopefully win fresh admirers.

The piano music of Bohuslav Martinů (1890-1959) is stylistically diverse, with elements of Romanticism brushing against Bartókian modernism and jazz idioms. The two pieces here, Colombine Dances and Harlequin, are rightly among his most widely known.

Jiří Vřešťál (1930-52) may have developed into a major voice in European music had he lived longer; his Study in Sixths is a polka with undisguised folk influence, and much fun to play. A particularly enjoyable discovery!

Of the four pieces from the later twentieth century, the Preludio ostinato of Miloslav Kabeláč (1908-79) is the most substantial. But I find myself more persuasively drawn to Petr Eben’s evocative and calming Bells Before the Lights Go Out and the gorgeous (if slight) Swans by Luboš Sluka.

In terms of omissions meanwhile, a big surprise is the absence of any music by the great classical composer Leopold Koželuch, whose music Bärenreiter have long championed (see my review here).

And while few Czech women have yet made their name as composers, I am quite surprised by the omission of Otilie Sukovâ (1878-1905), while the exclusion of the brilliant Vítězslava Kaprálová (1915-40) is particularly disappointing: the inclusion of one of her Dubnová Preludes or Five Piano Compositions would certainly have added another colour to the collection.

Bärenreiter’s Expedition

As ever from Bärenreiter, the music book is a lush affair. The soft matt cover, just a modicum larger than used by other publishers, opens to 64 high quality cream pages within.

A simple but effectively designed title page and contents listing leads to the editor’s short introduction, and then the scores themselves.

The notation is presented in Bärenreiter’s spacious and beautifully clear house font, the only slight exception to the publisher’s normal form being that pieces follow straight on from each other, without page breaks.

There is ample fingering throughout, all of it most helpfully considered and useful, and although the title page says that Ivo Kahánek “revised” the pieces I suspect this is a mistranslation for “edited”; certainly the pieces I am familiar with seem complete, and accurately presented.

For those wanting to enjoy this “expedition” in its own right, I think it would have been helpful to put the music in context by including background info about the composers themselves and the genesis of the pieces. Further to this, the only information given about the original sources is a listing of other publications for further exploration; some works are difficult to fully identify from this book alone.

Closing Thoughts

I have a feeling that the year 2022 is going to be one in which stunning new collections and anthologies play a significant role in our discovery of fresh or overlooked music. Minor criticisms aside, An Expedition Into Czech Piano Music brilliantly serves this purpose, delivering a superb compilation of consistently outstanding music.

I realise that in choosing my favourites, I have ended up discussing almost every piece, and that’s no coincidence: the book is a highlight from first page to last.

This new publication from Bärenreiter will come as a joy to those who are already familiar with the riches of piano music by Czech composers past and present, will be a revelation to those who don’t, and must be considered an essential purchase for all advanced players keen to expand their repertoire…

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based in Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.