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Pavel Zemek Novak: 24 Preludes & Fugues / Howard

Novak / Howard
Release Date: 05/31/2011 
Label:  Champs Hill Records   Catalog #: 16   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Pavel Zemek-Novák
Performer:  William Howard
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

May or may not be one of the finest contemporary works for piano but for sheer scale of invention at least it must go on the shortlist.

This is the first recording of Moravian composer Pavel Zemek Novák's 24 Preludes and Fugues. The work is divided into four sections, two Old Testament and two New Testament books, composed over a period of seventeen years. The last book actually consists of six Fugues with Postludes, with the final piece a 'Parallel Fugue and Postlude'.

In an interesting essay on his website entitled Art of the Fugue, English composer David Matthews notes that Novák "has a radically unorthodox attitude to fugue: the first fugue, evoking the creation of heaven and earth,
Read more has only one voice, and no counterpoint; the sixth fugue is built on a one-note theme and employs only seven notes altogether." These remarks were written when Novák had still only completed the two Old Testament books; now that the other, New Testament is finished, Matthews' enthusiasm for Novák's work is undiminished. As well as furnishing the booklet notes, he writes in his conclusion: "I have no doubt that these 24 Preludes and Fugues are one of the finest piano works of our time."

That leaves Matthews open to polite suggestion that he listen to more music, and Champs Hill Records to accusations of possibly counter-productive hype. The title alone, with its strong association with Bach (and Shostakovich), is surely pressure enough. So it is surprising, perhaps, to discover music that is anything but pretentious: non-radical, unostentatious, intangible, arcadian, limpid, concentrated, extemporised, ethereal.

Matthews likens the Preludes and Fugues to Ligeti's Etudes; true to a degree, but it is more than Ligeti's atheism that differentiates them, and such a comparison runs the risk of making them seem more forbidding than they are. Novák's frequently bell-like sonorities are mainly diatonic, and there is plenty of melody and tonal harmony to satisfy most tastes, even if it is more often fragmented than not. There are musical references to Scarlatti, Bach, Haydn, Beethoven and others.

The Preludes and Fugues are undeniably devotional - Novák's own deep religiosity is reflected in the various Biblical subtitles, not just of the New Testament books, but also in the Old Testament, where every Prelude and Fugue bears a title, from the opening 'Creation of Heaven and Earth' to the final 'Isaiah (2)'. However, searchers for spiritual enlightenment may be better off with Bach - Novák's sometimes atonal idiom is likely just a little too modern for the old religions, and the overarching mood is more one of mysticism.

Novák makes considerable and impressive use of rests and pedalling throughout his work, right from the very first note: the second is heard a full ten seconds later. The Old Testament pieces are individually crafted, whereas those of the New Testament are in the nature of dovetailing parts of a larger whole. The Preludes/Postludes and Fugues are mutually contrastive, with any bravura writing generally, though not exclusively, reserved for the former.

The Preludes and Fugues were written for the underrated but excellent British pianist William Howard, also known as one quarter and founder of the Schubert Ensemble, and who gave the premier performance in 2007. Despite its unassuming superstructure, the technical base of Novák's music is extremely demanding, both in terms of sheer stamina and the degree of technical prowess required. Howard is absolutely equal to it, completing his quasi-pilgrimage adroitly and poetically.

Sound quality is very good. The CD booklet is slim-line but informative, and has a nice colour photo of Novák with Howard during recording. This may or may not be one of the finest contemporary works for piano - it is probably too early to say. But for sheer scale of invention at least it must go on the shortlist.

-- Byzantion, MusicWeb International


Pavel Novák's 24 preludes and fugues fill this disc rather satisfyingly.

Novák was born in south Moravia. He studied composition in Brno with Miloslav Istvan who had been taught by Janá?ek pupil Jaroslav Kvapil … and related to the pianist Radoslav Kvapil, I wonder?

He secured a British Council grant and travelled to London in 1993 where he studied with George Benjamin. He later went to work with Gérard Grisey in Paris and now teaches in Brno. At one time he was principal oboe at the Brno national theatre. There are now at least five symphonies and six string quartets. Novák has in hand a large-scale setting for three choirs and three orchestras of the St Mark Passion and has recently set pen to paper with a St Luke Passion.

These 24 pieces were written specifically for William Howard over the period from 1989 to 2006 and were premiered at Dartington just ten or so miles from where I grew up in Devon. The complete sequence was performed by Howard in Brno in September 2007 and again later the same year in London.

The music is bitingly detailed. It defies the bounds of tonality yet never abdicates the need to communicate with audiences. Dissonance is present but in a caramelised Bergian sense or occasionally in a Messiaenic gauzy impressionistic haze. On occasions the music romps through violent altercation with the music's heroic sense preserved - even accentuated. Howard kicks his way though ice and crystal constructs - blazes and fades. Memorable emphasis is found in the ffff Clamavis – No. 9 in book 1. De profundis battles can be heard in the strenuous complexity of the tenth. Sidereal lights glint and gleam recalling the work of Urmas Sisask. There is Beethovenian brusqueness too (13). In No. 14 baroque patterning is suddenly bogged down and transformed. The 18 th is flighty and joyfully Bachian. Then in the 30 th there is a fast dripping effect a little like the chiming in Nights in the Gardens of Spain. A violent cimbalom sound is as hard as stone in No. 37 linking perhaps with the Bartókian impacts of No. 39. In 44 and 46 we encounter a motorised pianola effect – a moment suggesting Nancarrow. There is relaxation in the deliquescent coruscations of No. 47.

The liner-note is by composer David Matthews who brackets this cycle as one of the finest piano works of our time standing with Ligeti’s three books of Etudes.

Novák is not related to any of the other two Nováks we may know.

We need to hear this music and those of us who enjoy the provocation and stimulation of 24s must not miss out on this.

-- Rob Barnett, MusicWeb International
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Works on This Recording

Preludes and Fugues (24) for Piano by Pavel Zemek-Novák
Performer:  William Howard (Piano)
Period: 21st Century 
Written: Czech Republic 

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