Album detail
Catalogue number: SU 4223-2

“An instrument should be approached with an open heart, then it itself will teach you,” the pianist Petra Matějová says. Supraphon has just released an album of Václav Jan Křtitel Tomášek’s Piano Sonatas (SU 4223–2), as immaculately performed by her. The artist talks about the composer with great ardour, admiration and understanding, as though she knew him in person. Yet just as enthusiastically has Matějová approached the music of other composers who lived during a time she is particularly fond of – the Classicist period at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries – among them Jan Václav Hugo Voříšek. Since completing her hammerklavier studies in Paris, Petra Matějová has given numerous concerts, made a number of recordings and taught at master classes across Europe. The present album aims to convince the listeners and Matějová’s fellow pianists that the time has come to revive Tomášek’s keyboard music and put it back on concert stages, as it so richly deserves.

Václav Tomášek was one of the few Czech composers of his time who did not leave his country so as to earn his living and gain fame abroad. Why?
Definitely because when he was 30 year of age he was offered a very lucrative job by Count Buquoy, who was very keen on his music and employed him as a teacher and composer. What is more, Tomášek was provided with luxury accommodation and boarding at the Buquoy Palace in Prague, and in the summer he would stay with the Count’s family at their residence in Nové Hrady. He would have been foolish indeed to turn down such an offer.

So, that was the reason why he did not pursue a career as a lawyer, even though he had studied law.
Because of Buquoy’s offer, he dispensed with other activities too. He simply opted for a career as a musician. Furthermore, he was a sought-after music educator. By the time he left Buquoy’s service, in 1823, when he got married, he had become a distinguished piano teacher. Tomášek ran a reputable salon and was one of the most expensive teachers in Prague. Nonetheless, at one time, he really did try to get to Vienna, and was even assisted in this matter by his pupil Jan Václav Hugo Voříšek, yet he did not succeed.

Was Voříšek a pupil of his?
To all appearances he was, yet the sources only confirm that the lessons lasted for a mere few months, for Tomášek had to abandon some of his pupils, including Voříšek, owing to lack of time. Yet although Voříšek did not study with Tomášek for long, the two became friends.

Tomášek wrote his own biography, in which he comes across as quite self-assured.
Self-confidence may well have been one of his traits, but he was a highly erudite and adroit man indeed! A notable pianist, composer and educator. No wonder, then, that he held himself in esteem, as he duly revealed in his autobiography.

Regrettably, he ceased to depict his life relatively early. What was the reason?
The reason why he failed to complete his autobiography is not clear. You’d be better off asking the musicologist Markéta Kabelková, the head of the Music History Department of the Czech Museum of Music, a specialist in Tomášek’s life and work, owing to whom I actually arrived at the subject. Perhaps he stopped writing for practical reasons – in the final phase of his life, Tomášek was extremely busy with teaching. Yet the autobiography is of major importance for us, since it is the one and only more or less comprehensive source of information. Otherwise we know very little about him. We also drew upon the text when we were attempting to date Tomášek’s com­positions, as there are very few sources in this respect.

When did he compose the sonatas featured on your new CD?
Initially, they were thought to have been written between 1800 and 1806, yet when I explored them closely, I arrived at the conclusion that the first sonata might have been composed in 1799. Nonetheless, it is impossible to ascertain the exact date, as part of the Faculty of Law’s archive in Prague has burnt down, and documents attesting to the theses and the graduates have been lost. That is where we would have found the date on which Tomášek’s thesis, which is related to his music, was approved.

How is it that Václav Tomášek is not as well known as the other Czech composers of his time?
I assume that there are several reasons, one of them being the date of his birth. Tomášek’s disad­vantage is that his anniversary overlaps with that of Bedřich Smetana (editor’s note: the years of birth are 1774 and 1824, respectively). The creators of concert series generally reflect anniversaries in the programmes and musicians’ presentations. And Smetana is very hard to compete with. Nevertheless, I hope that in the near future Václav Tomášek will have joined the ranks of some of his contemporaries, who were discovered for the audience by musicians and musicologists in the 1960s and 1970s, which saw the beginning of a renewed great interest in early music.

You yourself have made a great contribution to Tomášek’s redis­covery.
Well, I am not alone in this respect. Musica Florea, for instance, recently performed Tomášek’s Te Deum and other vocal pieces of his. Of major significance is that Czech Radio has been publishing the sheet music of all his sonatas, so I hope they will soon become familiar among the wider public too. I myself have recorded some of the sonatas for the radio.

Years ago, Tomášek’s keyboard works were recorded by the pianist Pavel Štěpán. How does his take on them differ from your performance?
As far as I know, Pavel Štěpán above all recorded the Eclogues, which are virtually the only well-known Tomášek pieces today. The piano is essentially different, and that duly determines the manner of performance. I play the instruments, or their copies, which were common in Tomášek’s time and which starkly differ from the contemporary piano. And there is a geographic difference to take into account too. The modern piano was derived from the English type of the instrument. To put it simply, that instrument is suitable for long sound, cantilena. Whereas the Viennese piano – used across the Central Europe region – possesses other characteristic qualities; it is good for speed, articulation, “scampering”. Hence, it appears that the pieces once composed for this “Viennese” instrument are difficult to transfer to the opposite pole, that is, the piano whose main property is the ability to generate long and melodious sound. Consequently, my account above all differs from the modern performances owing to my playing an older type of the instrument.

And that in turn greatly affects the manner of playing, does it not?
Yes, the entire performance depends on it, since it is mainly determined by the type of instrument. The manner of playing, the manner of using the pedal, the tempo, etc. That is precisely what the magic of that which is termed “historically informed performance” rests in. I myself do not really like the term, but I do use it, as it has become established.

Is it not the correct term, then?
That is not what I mean. It started to be applied in the 1960s, when the movement for “early music” was enjoying a great boom, and there is nothing we can do about it now. By using the term, we aim to stress the fact that we strive to play period instruments or their copies while being familiar with the historical sources too. Although, of course, no one today is able to specify how music was actually performed two hundred years ago. On the other hand, we do have available ample credible circumstantial evidence that has to be taken into consideration.

What helps you the most in this regard?
Instructional for us are, for instance, the period textbooks, in which everything is described. Sometimes, though, it is not easy to read them, as they are written in a specific language. You have to immerse yourself in the respective era, apply historical methods. Besides the textbooks, there are, most significantly, particular musical instruments. When you embrace them with an open heart – I must emphasise, with an open heart – they suggest a lot. When you are lucky enough to have the opportunity to play, spend a certain period of time with, such an instrument, it itself will teach you.

You stress the necessity of having an open heart – does it mean that there are musicians who approach historical performance without having an emotional relationship to it?
I feel obliged to emphasise the open heart because there are many keyboard players who only try to play such an instrument as they want to make sure that it is imperfect. They approach it with this intention and they seemingly do indeed verify that which they had presumed, that it is just a predecessor of our perfect modern piano. Such musicians are not likely to find anything valuable in historical instruments.

And the other type of musicians?
Naturally, the “early” piano can be approached from a different angle. With the conviction that it is evidently more appropriate to play a two-hundred-year-old composition on a two-hundred-year-old instrument than on one that was only built two centuries after the music was created.

You have reminded me of that which Professor Zuzana Růžičková said, describing a discussion she had a long time ago with Sviatoslav Richter, about whether it is more appropriate to perform Bach on the piano or the harpsichord.
That is a complex question. Bach, however, is quite a specific case, for his music is absolute and, in my opinion, can be played on virtually any instrument. Even in his time, Bach was highly singular, different from all those around him.

And the other old-time composers?
Classicism is somewhat different; I am of the opinion that many Classicist pieces do not sound overly great when they are played on modern instruments. That may even be the reason why they have been overlooked and are not frequently included in the repertoire – their quality simply rests elsewhere, which the contemporary instrument is incapable of expressing. Accordingly, we stick to the Haydn – Mozart – Beethoven troika, as the other composers are, unfortunately, generally deemed to be “second-rate” today. Yet the only reason for this is that modern instruments are not able to convey the value of their music in the way that would be acceptable at the present time. And historical instruments are not always available.

How would “your” Tomášek sound if it were played on the modern piano? Would it differ dramatically?
One of the less perceptible, yet quite essential, differences is the instrument tuning. Firstly, today we are accustomed to 440–443 Hz, whereas, according to the current consensus, we now tune Classicist music to 430 Hz, and earlier music, in dependence on the respective period, to even lower frequencies. Secondly, nowadays we hear the bulk of music in equal temperament – a system of tuning in which the frequency interval between every pair of adjacent notes has the same ratio. When it comes to early music, this type of tuning was scarcely, and only experimentally, applied. Commonly used was unequal temperament, owing to which the keys are more or less tense. The keys that are more natural, i.e. with fewer sharps and flats – C major, G major, D major, A major – to E flat with “b” sound very relaxed, while the keys with a greater number of marks are much tenser. Although the average listener may not perceive it, the difference is essential, and it particularly manifests itself at the emotional level. Esotericists claim that the ease evoked by the wave frequency A=432Hz is pleasant and beneficial for the human body.

How did you come to devote to music history, as a performer and theoretician?
I studied the modern piano at the Prague Conservatory and the Academy of Performing Arts. I have always had a penchant for Classicism; I have always liked playing music dating from that stylistic era. Unlike the majority of pianists, who only begin feeling good around 1830, the Romantic period. Although I didn’t eschew other eras, the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries was closer to my heart. And since at the time of my studies there were few opportunities to encounter the period instruments in this country, following my graduation I left for Paris. My original intention was to attend a master class with Professor Eugen Indjic. Numerous pianists of my generation had taken his international performance classes in Piešťany, Slovakia. We really enjoyed them, and I am not the only one who subsequently decided to go to Paris and study with Indjic, at least for a short time. While in France, I started to look about to see what was going on with the hammerklavier there. It was in Paris where my interest in and decision to devote to the instrument truly ripened.

Because of the instrument itself or because of the music that was written for it?
Above all, because of the repertoire, as I was interested in this particular stylistic and historical period. I knew that in many countries the hammerklavier was studied as the main discipline and, as I have said, there were few opportunities at home at the time. And I was afforded such an opportunity right at the beginning of my studies in Paris. During a concert of the harpsichordist Zdeňka Ošťádalová at the Czech Centre, I met the hammerklavier player Patrick Cohen, who had been invited to the performance. And that was that. Afterwards, over the half a year I took lessons from Professor Indjic, I was concurrently training on the hammerklavier. I was certain that I wanted to continue to devote to the instrument.

I have read in your CV that you studied for your doctoral degree within a “cotutelle” programme. Could you explain what that is?
It is a very interesting system of doctoral study, entailing joint supervision according to an agreement between universities in two countries. In my case, they were the Sorbonne and Paris Conservatoire, and the Academy of Music and Performing Arts in Brno. I received a scholarship from the French government, on the basis of which I studied half a year in one, half a year in the other country over three years.

What was the subject of your doctoral thesis?
Jan Václav Hugo Voříšek’s music, which represents a sort of transition between Classicism and the period that followed. I deliberately avoid the term “Romanticism”, for it is not precise. Voříšek’s music is very Romantic as regards its content, yet is Classicist when it comes to the idiom.

Your hammerklavier is a rather precious instrument. Do you take it with you to concerts?
Yes, most of the time. I own an instrument of five and a half octaves, it is practical, relatively easy to transport, and it corresponds to the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries. Yet at the present time, suitable instruments are often available at more distant places, so I don’t have to travel to, for instance, Poland and Slovakia, with my hammerklavier. Yet I play a different instrument on the Supraphon album.

You are also interested in the effect music has on the prenatal development of babies…
I was inspired by my own experience of motherhood. I performed at several thematic concerts held by the Czech Philharmonic, and later on I went on to give concerts for mothers-to-be through the A Centrum in Prague. Some time ago, the Czech Philharmonic pursued a successful cycle for pregnant women, which proved to be very popular. The programme was guided and presented by the pianist Markéta Vejvodová, who maintains the view that music has a positive effect on the development of the foetus. I myself have experienced it that the baby in the womb is indeed highly sensitive to sounds and noises.

Your CD with Tomášek’s sonatas has been released within Supraphon’s pra­iseworthy and acclaimed Music from Eighteenth-Century Prague series, which over the years has brought to light a number of discoveries. Tomášek’s keyboard pieces are certain to rank among them.
Yes, it is a truly exquisite edition, and I hope it will also fill the temporal gap at the end of the 18th century. The majority of the titles have so far been dedicated to the first half of the 18th century. When it comes to Tomášek, his music may be deemed a watershed, since he wrote his sonatas in the first years of the 19th century, with the bulk of them having been composed in its first half. One of the supporting ideas of my project was the fact that, in terms of their musical idiom, seven of Tomášek’s sonatas rather pertain to the 18th century. I am happy that my album has been included in the Supraphon series. With regard to the edition, I can see plenty of other Classicist chamber works and music for the solo piano.

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