The veteran Czech pianist Frantisek Rauch has made a valuable and immediately enjoyable contribution to our knowledge of Bedrich Smetana's piano music on a new Supraphon disc (1111.1587) on which he plays two early sets of Sketches, Opp. 4 and 5, and the later and far more substantial set of pieces titled Dreams.
Each set of Sketches comprises four brief pieces, derived from plans for a series of two dozen such pieces made by Smetana in his mid-20s. They are fresh, melodic and engaging, ranging from colorful genre-pieces ("Idyll," "Scherzo-Polka," etc.) to little tone paintings in contrasting moods ("Cheerful Country," "Relentless Struggle"). The six Dreams, composed in 1875, by which time Smetana had turned stone deaf and had begun his orchestral epic "My vlast," may be regarded as a sort of personal, intimate companion work to the six tone poems collected under that title, and to the string quartet "From My Life" as well.
The component section of Dreams are "Faded Happiness," "Consolation," "In Bohemia (Country Scene)," "In the Salon," "Near the Castle" and "Harvest Home." The music is personal in regard to the style Smetana had developed by the time he reached the age of 50 as well as to the autobiographical connotations. An intriguing surprise comes in the final number, whose climax is reached with a theme -- evidently from a folk song -- familiar to us from Dvorak's subsequent use of it in the middle of the splended finale of his Eighth Symphony.
That number, "Harvest Home," is separated from its companions to begin Side 2, a gratuitous inconvenience, since the entire cycle would have fit snugly on a single side. That is the only irritant, though, and it is a rather meaningless one in the face of the worthwhile music, the superb performances and the fine recorded sound.
A more irritating side layout, which led me to pass up another Surraphon disc when it was imported here a year or two back, is preserved in its transfer to the domestic Quintessence label. The performances are quite exceptional: the Schumann Piano Concerto and Franck's Symphonic Variations played by Ivan Moravec with the Czech Philharmonic under Vaclav Neumann (Pmc-7153, cassette P4C-7153, both processed for "SQ" quadraphonic playback).
Moravec's playing, in the Schumann especially, is nothing less than revelatory, bringing out more than a few usually hidden details and yet unfolding with a truly Schumannesque sense of spontaneity and passion. Neumann and the orchestra are at their very best, too, providing no mere accompaniment but a fully integrated symphonic collaboration. I would only question whether the Franck piece was the only available coupling for a performance of the Schumann Concerto that could not be accommodated on a single side. Timings are such that the disc has to be turned over at the end of the second movement -- which in this concerto is linked directly to the finale.
As inconvenient as the disc is in this respect, the cassette is more troublesome still, for the 21-minute side 1 has to be run off or "fast-forwarded" at the point of interruption before turning over to the 27-minute side 2. Should you decide the performances are worth the inconvenience, you will find the sound itself quite handsome, in four-channel playback or two.
One of the very few discs from Quintessence to disappoint me on musical grounds is the new reissue of Yevgeny Svetlanov's recording of the Borodin Second Symphony with the U.S.S.R. Symphony (PMC-7165, cassette P4C-7165). Several of my colleagues felt this was a splended performance when it was issued a dozen years ago on Melodiya/Angel, but it struck me as overblown and unconvincing then, and still does, while the tinny sound has not been much improved in the remastering. The performance of "In the Steppes of Central Asia" which opens side 1 is attractive, but it is available in other combinations; that of the Polovtsi March from "Prince Igor" suffers from the same faults as the handling of the Symphony. There is no outstanding version of the Symphony now, but there are several more satisfying than this one.