24 Preludes & Fugues [UK premiere]
William Howard (piano)
Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter
Reviewed: 5 December, 2007
Venue: St Giles Cripplegate, London
Pavel Novák is entering his fifties. He comes from Brno, which is associated with Janáček. His Second Symphony, entitled “St John Passion”, won him a Janáček Foundation Prize in 1998; his Fifth won First Prize in a 2004 competition celebrating the 50th-anniversary of the Brno State Philharmonic Orchestra. In England, Novák has strong connections with the Dartington International School and the Schubert Ensemble.
The 24 Preludes & Fugues are dedicated to and written for William Howard, an assiduous and dedicated performer of Novák’s music. Written over 17 years (1989 to 2006), their manner of gestation has something in common with William Bolcom’s settings of Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and of Experience. A further feature to Novák, however, is the way his Christian faith permeates his every work, inviting comparison with Messiaen and Tavener.
Indeed, the 24 Preludes and Fugues all have biblical themes and titles. The first 12, from the Old Testament, have titles relating them to specific narratives, such as the Creation, Moses and Jeremiah; the 12 from the New Testament concern themselves with aspects of faith (the Word, the Lamb of God). The last six, deliberately brief and fragmentary, are played without a break, in a culmination of mystical spirit.
This music lies easy on the ear. The style is melodic and tonally harmonic – qualified perhaps to be called ‘post-modern’. Novák acknowledges the past in references to Schutz, Scarlatti, Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Schubert.
The form of the Fugues is Novák’s own. Bearing little resemblance to those of Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven; they “display a novel and powerful approach to the old Baroque form, being mostly free from counterpoint, while revealing the composer’s growing interest in unison and consonance in his compositional language”. In part, this seems to be a reaction against (or a development from) student studies heavily based on Janáček’s handling of isolated fragments, but is telling nonetheless.
Stylistically, the sections vary. One proceeds via single notes, with the pedal suggesting harmony; others change register frequently and abruptly – or are confined to particular areas of the keyboard; yet others bustle in vigorous syncopation. The occasional chorale-like block adds weight; in the later Fugues especially, the tone lightens – with a prolonged suggestion of heavenly birds, through trills not unlike those in Beethoven’s Opus 111.
Technically, the music is demanding – not only in the time required to play the whole sequence, but also in the dexterity and skill required. With a most unassuming manner, William Howard put his considerable prowess to the service of promoting Novák’s work. An ancient, several-times battered, scorched and rebuilt church was a most appropriate venue for this devotional music. The work, for both composer and performer, has clearly been a labour of love, reaching and satisfying a spiritual hunger from the many who yearn for uplift in terms that they are comfortable with – and from which they can, consequently, receive comfort.
I must confess that I did not receive such a spiritual charge – though I fully admired William Howard’s stately skill. I do have a strong inkling of what other listeners may have received, however, through remembering what I found missing in Novák: the devotional thrust of Janáček’s “Glagolitic Mass” and the gentler faith of his earlier “The Lord’s Prayer”.