On Friday 13 October 2023, Supraphon released a remarkable album of Jan Novák‘s concertos, made by the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Tomáš Netopil. The solo parts of the three works it features have been undertaken by the composer’s daughters, who afford the recording a certain hallmark of authenticity. The two sisters, the pianist Dora Novak-Wilmington and the flautist Clara Novak, are supplemented by the pianist Karel Košárek. While Clara may have felt she was 15 again, when her father dedicated to her the first version of Choreae vernales, Dora assumed the role of her mother Eliška, a brilliant pianist, who originally performed Concentus biiugis with her husband. The album may thus strike one as a family reunion across time. Prior to the recording’s release, we talked to all its main protagonists: Clara Novak, Dora Novak-Wilmington, Karel Košárek and Tomáš Netopil.
How did you feel when making the new Supraphon album?
Jan Novák’s works have ever more frequently been recorded of late throughout Europe and in North America. His music has enjoyed an increased interest. When I came to know of Supraphon’s intention to record my father’s concertos, my immediate reaction was: AT LONG LAST!
What was it like collaborating with Tomáš Netopil, Karel Košárek and the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra?
I was happy to get together with members of the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra, with whom I once performed Choreae vernales in Polička. Tomáš Netopil proved to be an excellent conductor, who approaches Novák’s music with the utmost professionalism. His conception was clear-cut and highly musical alike.
What should one focus on when listening to the album?
You can listen in various ways, concentrating on the technical aspects, or analytically, emotionally … I think that my father’s music in general and the pieces on this album in particular are about life’s beauty and, primarily, joie de vivre. My father had a sense of humour and sharp wit, he was “light-hearted” without being frivolous. And joy may also be a manifestation of resistance, either political or, more widely, against “memento mori”.
What is your relationship to your father’s music?
My father‘s music has, understandably, been an integral part of my life ever since I was born. The sound of the piano he played when composing was one of the sounds of our home. Exploring his works once I had acquired sufficient technical skills was natural, and I did not even realise how important it would be for me in the future.
His untimely death shook my hitherto carefree view of the world. Only my conscious concentration on performance and publishing of his works allowed me to assume due distance – it’s the possibility of communication.
Gradual acquaintance with his oeuvre did not take the form of discovering that which I was familiar with – the very opposite was the case: I never cease to marvel at the sheer diversity of his music. Notwithstanding the certain monolithic nature of his musical idiom, his works differ in terms of content and are absolutely singular due to the means used and the piano style. Each and every one of them is unique and enriching.
I deem recording my father’s works for a label as renowned as Supraphon recognition of his music. I feel greatly honoured to have participated in it, even more so when collaborating with such distinguished artists as Tomáš Netopil and Karel Košárek.
How did your collaboration come about?
I first met Tomáš Netopil and Karel Košárek in a wonderful milieu, at a cafe in the square in the town of Kroměříž. We all really looked forward to the musical adventure ahead of us. The rehearsals and the recording sessions with the outstanding members of the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra were amazing and inspiring, as well as very entertaining. The musicians are not just highly dexterous professionals, they also have a great sense of humour. A key role too was played by Tomáš Netopil, who always approached the individual players with understanding.
When it comes to collaboration with Karel Košárek, which preceded the recording, I have described it in the CD booklet. The two concertos not only date from different times, they also diverge as regards their content and focus. Making two pianos resound to the full is a great delight; when playing together, Karel and I were compelled to transform into dancers, dancing with our hands … I would like to see as many pairs of pianists as possible “dancing”!
What would you like to tell listeners to the new album?
I would like to quote Rafael Kubelík: “Music is not just spirited playing; music elevates.” And also Bohuslav Martinů, who wrote: “Music should be joyful; tragic music too should be joyful.”
That entirely applies to my father’s music, which speaks to every listener, not just the imaginary intellectual elite. He put it wittily and succinctly: “The listener should slap their thighs with joy”. The spectrum of his musical thinking is enormous, for it encompasses the profundity of inner feelings, but also levity, wit and joie de vivre; defiance against any kind of pressure against freedom of thought, as well as love of Moravian folk music and the rhythm of Latin poetry. I hope the new album will bring joy to every single listener!
What was it like working with Jan Novák‘s daughter Dora?
Dora Novak–Wilmington’s engagement was absolutely essential for the making of the album. For me personally, working with her was a pleasant and enriching experience. Dora is not just a brilliant pianist, she is also an inspiring and charming person. During the rehearsals and recording sessions, she provided invaluable performance information and observations, naturally based on her thorough knowledge of her father’s oeuvre, his sources of inspiration, his style and piano playing.
Although the years the Nováks spent beyond their homeland were not easy at all, she talked about the family’s life with humour. The various stories she told served to paint a picture of Jan Novák’s personality, his character, nature and talent. I would like to add that my initially purely professional relationship with Dora Novak has ultimately turned into a friendship, which I really treasure.
What makes Jan Novák unique?
Similarly to other noted composers, his musical language – the listener may detect inspiration by Stravinsky or Martinů in some pieces, but he never copied them – is singular, the style and ways of expression are unique and authentic. When listening to, for instance, the second movement of Concentus biiugis, it is admirable how Novák is capable of conveying the moods, colours and character of Moravian folk music, all that expressed by the piano and strings.
I believe that for many listeners Concentus biiugis and the Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra will be true revelations. Divided by more than two decades, the two pieces differ accordingly. The Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra teems with youthful zest and creative virtuosity, whereas Concentus biiugis conveys inner defiance and desire for freedom.
How would you characterise working with Jan Novák’s daughters and Karel Košárek?
I was working with Dora and Clara for the very first time. Their musical vitality and sense of their father‘s music were a great inspiration and aid. Combined with the high professionalism of the pianist Karel Košárek, whom I had met previously, it was a very pleasant and exceptional experience.
What can the listener expect?
I would above all highlight the omnipresent rhythmic dynamism, attesting to Novák’s affinity to Bohuslav Martinů and jazz music as such. The listener will also undoubtedly be intrigued by the challenging orchestral intermezzos, which are on a par with the solo parts.
In 1977, Novák wrote the first version of Choreae vernales, which three years later he arranged for string orchestra. The new album contains the latter, hardly known, form. What was the most difficult, or the most interesting, aspect when performing it?
I am of the opinion that the orchestral version afforded the piece its true meaning and character. The beautiful colour of the strings along with the different timbre of the celesta and the harp constitute an immense gamut, which Jan Novák brought to bear in Choreae vernales in a highly poetic and youthful monolith.