Novák: In the Tatra Mountains, Op. 26; Lady Godiva Overture, Op. 41; Eternal Longing, Op. 33. Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra; JoAnn Falletta, conductor. Naxos 8.573683. Total Time: 52:47.
By Paul E. Robinson
DIGITAL REVIEW — Everyone knows the story of Lady Godiva — at least the part that depicts her riding naked through the center of a town. But what composer would want to write music about that? Well, Vítězslav Novák (1870-1949) not only wanted to, but did — and did an impressive job of it. His Lady Godiva Overture is an excellent orchestral piece, and it gets a fine performance on this new recording by JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic.
Novák studied with Antonín Dvořák and was later head of the Prague Conservatory. In the Tatra Mountains, his best-known work, is also included on this new Naxos recording, but the Lady Godiva Overture may well be the better piece. Written for the opening of the Prague Municipal Theatre in 1907, the overture was designed to precede the premiere of Lady Godiva, a play by Jaroslav Vrchlický based on the well-known story from the 11th century.
Novák’s Lady Godiva Overture opens with a brassy, thrusting theme representing Lady Godiva’s husband, Leofric, Earl of Mercia. The tempo then slows, and the music becomes tender; as introduced by a clarinet, this is Lady Godiva’s theme. This is followed by a section of conflict between the two themes, out of which emerges a grandiose version of the Lady Godiva theme, presumably representing her famous ride through the streets of Coventry.
What were Lady Godiva and her husband arguing about? Leofric had just announced an onerous tax on his tenants, and his wife found this arbitrary act to be unfair and intolerable. Thus, Lady Godiva’s ride was intended as a protest against her husband. While the question of whether or not such a ride actually took place is a matter of conjecture, the story itself is the stuff of legend.
Novák’s Eternal Longing is an impressionistic symphonic poem based on stories by Hans Christian Andersen. Unfortunately, it lacks memorable tunes and wears out its welcome long before reaching its final bars.
Many composers have been inspired by the beauty and majesty of mountain ranges — Richard Strauss’ An Alpine Symphony being a notable example — and Novák’s In the Tatra Mountains is among the best of the genre. The Tatra mountain range lies in the border area between what was once called Czechoslovakia and Poland, and Novák often visited this picturesque region. The structure of the piece is basically (a) sunrise and the calm before the storm, (b) the storm itself, and (c) calm returning as night falls. While Novák generates plenty of excitement in the storm sequence, the best music is to be found in the final section, where he masterfully combines tolling bells with solo strings. The cello solo is especially memorable.
All three pieces have been recorded before — there is an especially strong performance of the Lady Godiva Overture by Libor Pesek and the BBC Philharmonic (Chandos) — but Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic have given us new versions that are as good as any of the older recordings. As captured by producer and engineer Tim Handley in Kleinhans Music Hall, the orchestra sounds rich and full, and all the solos are handled with real artistry.
Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for www.theartoftheconductor.com, www.musicaltoronto.org, and www.myscena.org.