If you want to know what a 'serpent' sounds like, or are inquisitive to hear the unusual tones of Smetana's very own five-pedal piano, then the Czech Museum of Music has just the CD for you. We also look at a beautiful recording of harp 'sinfonias' by the 18th century Czech composer, Jan Krtitel Krumpholtz.
We start with a new recording, a 2-disc set recently put out by the newly-reopened Czech Museum of Music here in Prague. The museum in Prague's Lesser Quarter is a delight. The best thing, other than the instruments on display of course, is that you can slip on headphones and hear recordings of the instruments being played. Now the museum has released a collection of the recordings, so visitors can take home a souvenir of their visit. For example, you can relish Bedrich Smetana's famous Polka, 'Souvenir of Plzen' played on a piano built around 1830, which was played by Smetana himself. The piano has 5 pedals, which change the timbre of the instrument, much like an organ stop might. Those are the sounds which Smetana would have had in his imagination while composing, and they are quite different from those on today's instruments.
Another gem from the collection is the sound of a 'serpent'. This is a wind instrument, shaped like a flattened double S-curve, from the baroque era, used at first to beef up the singing of Gregorian chant, and it is described in a 1914 orchestration textbook as having, I quote, 'the appearance of a dishevelled drain-pipe which was suffering internally'. Berlioz wrote of its 'frigid and abominable blaring' The CD features a serpent made in Vienna in approximately 1800.
Not all the recordings from the CD are quite as eccentric as the serpent. Particularly beautiful is a Minuet for harp from Jan Ladislav Dusík's Sonatina in E flat Major performed by Hana Mullerová-Jouzová.
And staying with Hana Mullerova-Jouzová, she has this year released a CD of harp sinfonias by the 18th century Czech composer, Jan Krtitel Krumpholtz, who is more often known as Jean-Baptiste Krumpholtz as he left his native Bohemia as a young man and enjoyed great success as a composer and performer on the harp in Paris. He also contributed considerably to technical improvements to the harp, and worked closely with leading harp-maker Sebastien Erard in Paris. In fact it was a set of pieces by Krumpholtz that inspired Erard to make the technical innovations that first appeared on this particular model of harp. The CD features several pieces from that time.
There are a couple of sayings about Czechs - that they have 'zlaté ruce', or golden hands, as far as fixing or making anything, and that they all are musical 'Co Cech, to muzikant', and Krumpholtz seems to have embodied both characteristics. Unfortunately he wasn't so lucky in love - his wife, also a celebrated harpist, had a love affair with Jan Ladislav Dusik and ran off to London with him. A year later, poor Krumpholz threw himself into the Seine - a tragic ending that contrasts with some of the lovely music Krumpholz left behind.
CDs reviewed in this programme are provided by Siroky Dvur
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