The featured composer at this year’s Edinburgh International Festival is Antonin Dvorak. Peter Cudmore talked to Festival director Brian McMaster and the musicians and singers who will be performing his work over the next four weeks about what makes his music so special.
describes Dvorak's place in his own musical galaxy. ‘He was an admirer of Brahms. and the feeling was mutual. Brahms helped him get a publisher. introduced _ him to Joachim and things like that. In , fact I think the Dvorak string sextet is superior in its writing to the Brahms sextet. The workings of
sk anyone in Britain what Dvorak means to them and the chances are they’ll immediately think of Hovis and that tune from the New World Symphony. Dig a little deeper, though, and
what most people respond to is not quaint sentimentality, but the vivacious, tuneful Bohemian spirit that pours from Dvorak’s pen. Brian McMaster, director of the Edinburgh International
Festival, is a self-confessed
Dvorak fanatic, ‘1 think the
thing about Dvorak is that he
wrote so many wonderful
tunes, but they’re also tunes
that come from the heart. For
example The Jacobin,
performed by Scottish Opera,
is one wonderful tune after another, and it is a fantastic score.’
With his background in opera, McMaster has an ear for melody, and his enthusiasm for Dvorak goes back a long way. ‘There was a time in my life when l was listening to quite a lot of Czech music. And, as far as I can make out, he was prolific but didn’t write a duff piece — and there aren’t many composers you can say that of.’ This year’s Festival gives McMaster the opportunity to pass on his enthusiasm. ‘We’re trying to do some of the pieces that are less well covered, not in the depth of last year’s Beethoven, but enough to show that Dvorak was a very, very good composer.’
Like Beethoven, Dvorak isn’t well known as a composer of vocal music, but Scottish Opera’s performances of The Jacobin re- introduces a work that many feel is unjustly neglected. Richard Coxon, who sings the role of Jiri in the production, enthuses: ‘lt’s absolutely beautiful.This work has an enormous wealth of tunes. i think it’s quite a funny piece too — there’s a lot of comedy, and a hell of a lot of dancing and movement. We have to catch our breath to sing the love duet.’ Claire Rutter, who plays Terinka, agrees — ‘There’s a lot of really beautiful music in it. This production’s just about the most physically demanding I’ve done. Richard and l have been
3 The List 18-24 Aug 1995
going down to the gym to get into shape for it. You have to move around a lot in opera these days, and you need to be ﬁt, otherwise you’re catching your breath when you should be singing,’ she says.
Dvorak might be unexplored territory for singers but chamber musicians. and string players in particular. know him well and love him. Anthony Marwood, first violin with the Raphael Ensemble, is clear about what the composer means to him: ‘I think one of the things that first attracted me to Dvorak was his very clear national consciousness, his clear musical identity. coupled with a very strong penchant for string writing. Dvorak himself was a viola player and it shows,‘ he says.
Bubbling with enthusiasm, Marwood
the inner voices are so beautifully balanced and well thought out. It’s very rich and luscious on the one hand. and extremely fine and delicate on the other — quite a lot of the dynamic markings are on the low side. It’s absolutely brilliant. You can hear all these wonderful strands. His writing for the second parts is always so interesting’
It’s great to hear such uncomplicated fervour. ‘I think I’m interested. when I‘m playing a composer. in knowing where they are coming from in every sense. I think that’s important.’ explains Marwood ‘I love playing composers where you have to understand and grapple with their musical language. For example. ., playing Bartok. I always feel, is very I; ', much like having to become fluent in a l ' foreign language. All the rhythms and stresses are so foreign, certainly to the British. that one has to make a violent gear-change to get inside the music. And also the same is true of Janacek of course. To some extent it‘s true of Dvorak too. It has a particular colour and flavour to it, which very much appeals to my taste — it’s ethnic, to some degree I suppose. and I find that very appealing.‘
Miroslav Sehnoutka, who plays viola with the Prague-based Panocha Quartet is more measured, but no less enthusiastic. ‘Dvorak. for us, is probably the most important composer in our reportoire. There are beautiful quartets by Smetana, by Janacek and by Martinu. but there are so many by Dvorak - and not only quartets, but wonderful quintets. sextets and other chamber pieces.’
Needless to say, Sehnoutka is well placed to reflect on the importance of Dvorék’s place in Czech culture which, as one of Europe‘s smaller countries. has similarities with Scotland. ‘There
Wood engraving of Dvorak by A. Stmadel