Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb International
October 2015

The Czech composer Václav Jan Křtitel Tomášek was born in Skuteč in 1774, studying in Jihlava – Mahler’s neck of the woods—and later Prague. Mozart was to become and to remain his ideal compositionally though his most memorable artistic encounters were literary—his favourable reception by Goethe. His Goethe volumes, containing numerous settings dedicated to the poet, were rewarded with a meeting in August 1822 where Goethe praised Tomášek’s setting of Mignon’s Sehnsucht above those of Beethoven and Spohr. Doubtless Goethe was pleased by the attention the Czech composer paid to the texts, without too much distraction. For Tomášek, discretion in word setting was paramount.

These 28 settings are largely taut, compact and full of elegant simplicity. There are rusticities, such as the piano’s opening statements in Schäfers Klagelied before the lamenting vocal line emerges as well as moments of agitation, such as in Rastlose Liebe. His gift for melody is exquisitely shown in Wandrers Nachtlied, though the frustrating brevity of the settings tends to militate against development of ideas, which can sound more decorative than psychologically probing, à la Schubert. Apparently Goethe took exception to the horse’s clip-clopping piano accompaniment in Erlkönig, but Tomášek at least retains a single authorial voice in the narrative without Schubert’s individual voicings, which would have pleased the poet. Indeed the most dramatic moment here is the piano postlude—at which Tomášek was adept. Charm was a principal component of his settings rather than any sense of theatricality, as well as the construction of single-mood, benignly melancholic pieces such as can be found in Sorge.

The Six Bohemian Songs are settings of poetry deriving from a literary hoax engineered by one Václav Hanka, a sort of Czech Thomas Chatterton, though the texts themselves—which claimed to be thirteenth and fourteenth-century poems—weren’t written by him but by two of his literary contemporaries. Whatever the machinations one would expect a slightly more robust approach to these settings on the part of the composer. Indeed I sense this is the case. For one thing the settings are somewhat more expansive, and for another there is more opportunity for overt expression—sample Wehmuth. If he is on his best behaviour with Goethe—walking on poetic eggshells—here he is more unfettered.

Elsewhere the piano introduction to Des Greises Trauerlied is unusually extensive—indeed it takes up fully half the song—and it reflects an increased degree of earnestness in this rather affecting setting. The bell peals in Lied Eines Alpenmädchens are an evocative device, well used.

These features show a wider range of devices than in the Goethe settings, and also reflect a little more the Mozartian-operatic element in his expressive arsenal. To all these songs Renata Pokupić brings a truly convincing tonal assurance and she is excellently partnered by Roger Vignoles.

There are full texts and English translations and a perceptive, valuable booklet note written by Susan Youens. The church acoustic is warm but not enveloping, though it does give the piano spectrum something of a golden halo.