Dancing with B.D.
The better half has gone to compete in the Internat’l Rudolf Firkušný Piano Competition. (Best of luck!) Not surprisingly, Czech music figures in the Firkušný’s requirements. The competition is sponsored in part by the Smetana Music Society, and Bedřich* specifically gets quite a bit of attention.
Smetana was a top-flight pianist. In his early years he campaigned to be a Czech Liszt** and was successful enough that his composing career sometimes got pushed to the shadows. Like Beethoven, Smetana’s hearing deteriorated over time (he dramatized the onset of deafness in the String Quartet “From My Life”). By the late 1870’s, when he wrote his Czech Dances, he couldn’t hear at all.
The Czech Dances are the peak of Smetana’s piano output and probably the best Czech (solo) piano music before Janáček. They’re in two sets. The first contains four Polkas; the second set, with ten pieces, uses a variety of dances and folk melodies as its basis. The dances have none of the desolation found in the last movement of the E minor Quartet. Instead, they are more like Ma Vlast – sparkling music inspired by the composer’s homeland. To quote an Amazon reviewer: “I love the freshness and spontaneity of Smetana, the nationalist elements displayed naturally and with pride but without descending to mannerisms.”
The piano writing is technically difficult, with a lot of variety throughout the set. There are effective showpieces (the Furiant is my favorite), melting tunes, and sprightly dances in abundance. Pianists interested in getting beyond the standard 19th-century rep. would do well to look into the Czech Dances.
* B.D. to his friends. The picture is me and B.D. kicking it by the river in ’02.
** I knew a pun on ‘czech’ would slip through. The double pun is a bonus.