We start back in the 17th century with the Capella Regia Musicalis, a cantionale, or hymnbook, created by Vaclav Karel Holan Rovensky in 1693-94 as an instrument of the Counter-Reformation. Songs from the hymnbook have been collected on a new CD by the Ritornello ensemble, under the direction of Michael Pospisil. There is a good selection of sacred songs running through the church year from Christmas to Easter.
According to the booklet that goes with the CD, this hymnbook was a great deal more than just a collection of hymns - it is a vast work containing texts and melodies, and not only songs but small cantatas, dramatic scenes, and - ironically - even music borrowed from the Protestant Hussites and Moravian Brethren. Most is in the Czech language.
The booklet also credits the hymnbook with containing recipes and tips about herbs, which may be true - although the commentary is rather fanciful at times. But what is sure is that the hymnal is colossal, and is one of the jewels of Czech musical history.
Another interesting thing about this hymnal is that it was printed in large format, and was meant for both home and liturgical use. It could be big because it was official, whereas the Protestant hymnbooks of the time were tiny - and subversive. After the Catholic victory at the Battle of the White Mountain (Bila Hora) in 1620, the Protestants used to smuggle in miniature hymnbooks, called "spalicky" - wooden spoons - a kind of early form of samizdat.
This is a wonderful recording on quite an obscure label - Tonus Classics - that our CD supplier said he had a hard time getting hold of. It contains Brahms' e minor sonata, the first of his two, and Martinu's third and last cello sonata.
Martinu wrote the sonata in 1952, while enjoying a holiday in France. His wife was French, and he had lived in Paris before the war, although by this time, he was already living exiled in America. This sonata is the best known of his cello sonatas, but even so, it is not as widely played as it deserves to be. It's good typical Martinu, straightforward and fresh. And Jiri Barta, who is the finest Czech cellist on the scene today, gives a fine performance, as does his partner Jan Cech.
Now we have something else from 1952 - a recording of the Czech Philharmonic playing Dvorak's not-so-well-known Fifth Symphony and the Slavonic Rhapsodies, which unlike the Slavonic Dances, are also not widely known. Equally forgotten is the conductor, Karel Sejna, who was a permanent conductor during Karel Ancerl's tenure. Supraphon has just reissued this, and the sound quality is excellent.
Have a listen to the second movement, where you get that wonderfully warm, sensuous string sound that the Czech Philharmonic is famous for. So you can see it's a tradition that goes way back! This movement is wonderfully drawn out. Dvorak is a master of the ending - he will end a section over and over - in this case it was at least 6 or 7 times - stretching it out. More often composers don't spend a lot of time on closing material, but Dvorak always lingers and luxuriates. But you never get the feeling he is hitting you over the head with something or repeating himself.
CDs reviewed in this programme are provided by Siroky Dvur
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