Guest post by William Howard
Two years ago I wrote some words on Howard Skempton’s piano music for this site, having just recorded a cycle of 24 Preludes and Fugues that he had written for me in 2019. Skempton was inspired to write these pieces after hearing (and reviewing) my recording of another cycle of 24 Preludes and Fugues, written for me by the Czech composer Pavel Zemek Novák between 1989 and 2006. Skempton’s 24 Preludes and Fugues were published by Oxford University Press within a year of their completion, but it is only now that Novák’s extraordinary cycle has become available, thanks to a new edition released this month by Music Haven.
Both cycles of Preludes and Fugues were composed to be performed in their entirety, but whereas Skempton’s are typically pared down and distilled, with very few notes on the page, Novák’s are written on an epic scale. His cycle, which lasts 75 minutes, is inspired by the Bible, the first twelve Preludes and Fugues based on the Old Testament and the second twelve on the New Testament. Composer David Matthews has described the work as ‘one of the finest piano works of our time, a worthy companion to Ligeti’s three books of Études’. This is a bold claim, given the fact that Novák’s music is comparatively little known, but it is one that I fully support myself. I am confident that other pianists around the world will now take up this powerful and dazzlingly original work.
I first came across Novák’s music in 1987, when composer David Matthews invited me to take part in a concert at the King’s Lynn Festival featuring works by Brno composers. I was sent a number of recordings to listen to in order to choose a programme and liked many of the works that I heard, but one that made the by far greatest impact on me was a tricky-sounding piece for oboe, cello and piano, which I had an immediate desire to play. I had been passionate about Janáček’s music for many years, and something about Pavel’s oboe trio made a similar kind of impact on me. Its strong, almost acerbic flavour seemed to me distinctly Moravian. Pavel made his first visit to the UK to hear the performance of this work, The Garden of Delights, in King’s Lynn, and for both David and myself a much-valued friendship was born.
At the time Novák was hardly known outside his hometown of Brno. As a practising Christian working under a communist regime, and unwilling to be a party member, he could expect to be offered very few opportunities as a composer. Since that time his reputation has grown, both in the Czech Republic and abroad. For some years, he received more performances of his music in the UK than in his own country, composing several new works for the Schubert Ensemble and for myself, and receiving commissions from Chroma, the Composers’ Ensemble, the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, and Dartington International Summer School. In the last couple of decades his most important commissions have come from major institutions in the Czech Republic, including the Czech Philharmonic and Brno State Symphony Orchestras.
As a student, Novák was immersed in the Janáček tradition of building form through working with small motifs and fragments, but he went on to develop his own distinctive style and to explore a wide range of other kinds of music. Believing that dissonance had had its day and that everything that could be said with it had already been said, he arrived in the 1990s at a new means of expression through imaginative use of consonance and unison, with voices supporting each other rather than working in opposition. The integrity and purity of his musical voice has its roots in his deep Catholic faith, which is the ultimate source of inspiration for all his music.
If his music has not been more widely performed, the reason is at least in part because scores have been unavailable. Fortunately, this situation is now changing. Many pieces are now available through the Czech Music Information Centre’s database and a few chamber works have been published by Madrid-based Da_sh Music, including a superb piano quintet, Royal Funeral Procession to Iona, that he wrote for the Schubert Ensemble in 1995.
In the case of the 24 Preludes and Fugues, several music publishers took an interest in the work following the positive reaction to the London premiere of the work in 2007 and to the recording (released in 2011) but found the scale and the complexities of the hand-written manuscript too daunting to take on. The great news is that, with the help of a handful of sponsors, three years of heroic typesetting by the composer Cydonie Banting and many dozens of hours of proof-reading and editing by the composer and myself, the score is now finally available.
The complete score is now available on the Music Haven website.
William Howard has recorded Pavel Novák’s 24 Preludes and Fugues on the Champs Hill Records label.
Listen to the album via Spotify
William Howard is established as one of Britain’s leading pianists, enjoying a career that has taken him to over 40 different countries. His performing life consists of solo recitals, concerto performances, guest appearances with chamber ensembles and instrumentalists. In 1983 he founded the Schubert Ensemble, with which he performed for the full 35 years of the Ensemble’s existence (it gave its final concert in June 2018). Winner of the 1998 Royal Philharmonic Society Award for Best Chamber Ensemble, the Schubert Ensemble earned a worldwide reputation as one of the finest piano and string ensembles, as well as setting up several ground-breaking educational projects and commissioning 50 concert works.
His solo career has taken him to many of Britain’s most important festivals, including Bath, Brighton and Cheltenham, and he has been artist in residence at several others. He has performed many times in the Wigmore Hall and the South Bank in London and has broadcast regularly for BBC Radio 3. For many years he has been invited to perform and teach at the Dartington International Summer School.