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CD Review

Tomás Svoboda

String Quartets, Volume 1

  • Quartet for Strings #1, Op. 29
  • Quartet for Strings #2, Op. 151
  • Quartet for Strings #3, Op. 175
  • Quartet for Strings #4, Op. 179
Martinů Quartet
North Pacific Music NPMLD022 2006 76:32
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Volume 2 Also Available

Orchestral Works

  • Overture of the Season, Op. 89
  • Concerto for Marimba, Op. 148
  • Symphony #1 "Of Nature", Op. 20
Niel DePonte, marimba
Oregon Symphony Orchestra/James DePreist
Albany TROY604 2003 70:59
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A musical Wunderkind, born in 1939, Tomás Svoboda wrote his Opus 1 at age nine, entered the Prague Conservatory at 15 and wrote his first symphony at 16, before he had any formal composition instruction. (Svoboda did find it necessary to make many revisions during rehearsals for performances a year later in Prague.) Later he studied individually with Ingolf Dahl and Halsey Stevens, the biographer of Bartók, in Los Angeles, where he completed a master's degree. Stevens found little that Svoboda needed teaching, as the work he presented was already nearly beyond his professor's criticism. Svoboda spent three decades teaching at Portland State University, where he is now Professor Emeritus. His compositions number over 180 and include six symphonies, two piano concertos, a violin concerto, two cantatas and at least eight quartets, as well as other chamber music. Most of the quartets have been recent. His works have been performed on a thousand occasions to date, including 400 symphonic performances – half of those of the overture reviewed here. He has had 50 commissions and his Marimba Concerto was nominated for a Grammy in 2003.

The quartets are quite different in character from one another. Number 1, Op. 29, written when Svoboda was about 20, is short (about ten minutes) but delightful. In four brief movements, and subtitled the "Dance Quartet," it is crisp and lively, even spritely. Reportedly it was influenced by broadcast Czech folk music and somewhat in the style of Janáček, with Bohemian harmonic language. I assume that it would be fun to play.

The second quartet (duration 25:44) was written thirty years after the first, in 1997, and is numbered Op. 151. Composed in the beautiful setting of mountainous Montana, the first two – of three – movements were composed in ten days. The opening movement begins very quietly and slowly, with a viola solo but becomes fast, complex and emotional. The middle movement sets the first violin over a pizzicato accompaniment by the other instruments. The final movement (lento moderato) begins peacefully and ends energetically in a manner that to my ears sounds Bartókian.

Quartet #3, Op. 175 (2002) is also in three movements. According to the unsigned notes accompanying the recording, which I tend to assume were written by the composer, this quartet expresses the "sadness of unfulfilled yearning." The first movement, in sonata form, has "tender polyphony," succeeded by development marked with "turmoil and confusion." The opening and ending of this movement is fierce and dissonant; in between it quiets and pauses, with rather short musical phrases. The second movement expresses the "relentless passage of time alternated with childhood memories" and the finale represents "the hope and positive energy of the present." I hear the second movement as rather march-like, with staccato attacks and without flowing melody; there is another moment reminiscent of Bartók. The finale, marked Vivace, has a skipping-along motion over some longer lines.

Quartet #4, with Bass Drum, is a somewhat grim and tragic affair in two movements only, expressive of the present state of the world which Svoboda does not regard hopefully. The "unfortunate war in Iraq" with its "uncontrolled consequences" sets its mood. The seven-minute Vivace is intense and suggests "nightmare images." The twelve minute second movement, beginning and ending Adagio, is a dirge. It is relieved by a central allegro section different in character and with some pizzicato playing. The last couple of minutes are marked by the slow beating of the drum played, as it happens, by the second violinist.

I have no information about Svoboda's later quartets.

The orchestral works on the Albany release also span a wide time period, from 1957 (and even earlier) in the case of the symphony, to the 1993 Marimba Concerto. They can all be approached without dread of any grim content, though they do have some loud climaxes! For some reason, Albany did not see fit to include any timings for these works and their sections, but I will indicate them here as I noted them.

The Overture of the Season – just which season is not specified – is celebratory in tone and has strong rhythms, including syncopation, throughout. Within its 8:42 duration it has more than one change of pace and makes good use of the whole orchestra from the bright brass and drums of the opening to nice parts for the strings and woodwinds, the flute especially.

The Marimba Concerto, composed on commission over the course of a year for the Oregon Symphony percussionist featured here, is lyrical and neo-romantic in style. Kind to this gentle and mellow instrument, the orchestra does not overwhelm the soloist, although in addition to those two parties to the action there is a "keyboard quintet," consisting of piano, celeste, harp, bells and crotales (a group of small, pitched cymbals, for those who don't know; I had to look this up myself.) This quintet, placed near the soloist and conductor, sometimes plays alone, contributing a concerto grosso-like effect. Each of the three movements runs between eight and nine minutes. The first movement, Moderato, includes a flute solo, a loud climax at midpoint, with a change in character towards the end which comes with a kind of quiet rumble. The Adagio, varied in character, with rising and falling tensions (characteristic of quite a lot of Svoboda's music), loud and soft passages, and march rhythms leading to a crescendo. It begins with melody in the strings and ends quietly and gently. The Vivace finale opens with a brash and brassy effect and it is nearly a minute before the soloist enters but things are quite gentle toward the end.

The symphony is quite substantial, and remarkably interesting from such a young composer. Svoboda evidently revised it a quarter century after its première, but the third movement is still based on the composer's Opus 1, called "A Bird." When first written, the composer was particularly drawn to the music of Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Dvořák and it shows particularly with respect to the last-named, notably in the finale. What particularly attracts me to the work is Svoboda's very strong rhythms – evident in his other works as well, and the varied character of the musical treatment, with effectively rising and subsiding tensions, for instance, so that I never found any part of the symphony tedious, turgid, or pointlessly overblown. The orchestration is masterful also. The notes sum up the work as a chorale, a scherzo in triple meter, an andante dominated by the color of the woodwinds, and a complex rondo with the character of Czech folk song and dance.

Movement One, a little over ten minutes, opens with a strong measured tread against which a melodic flute solo is heard over the strings, which swell to a full flow and some pounding within a couple of minutes. The melody is quite euphonious but there is some loud tension also; towards the end the treading pace becomes really exciting when it accompanies what I take to be a series of rising harmonic moves. The second movement, Presto, (8:14) is rhythmically exciting – dance-like – and includes some big tutti passages. The seven-minute Andante is marked by a definite beat, but the music always breathes: the bird it suggests is a Cuckoo, I would say. There is a passage of high light string playing followed by a full swelling effect and then a loud tutti. The finale (10:20) has a loud, cheerful and celebratory opening. Strong forward motion is predominant, but along the way there is gentleness, spritely melody, syncopation, pounding rhythms and a really big climax before a return of the sound of the Cuckoo and a quiet ending which dies away.

I strongly recommend both of these recordings.

Copyright © 2007, R. James Tobin Copyright 2007 by R. James Tobin