A colourful and possibly unexpected combination of Czech and French compositions that one might have heard in a salon in the mid-19th century will be featured on a recital of two artists who share—besides great flexibility of repertoire—a clear inclination towards historically informed interpretation. “I tried to imagine what a salon in the home of a wealthy Prague family would be like, perhaps in a flat on Charles Square or in Prague’s Lesser Town in the mid-19th century. There was probably a piano in the middle of the parlour. It might have been a Bösendorfer, like Dvořák’s, or an older instrument. Why not a Romantic-era fortepiano with its poetic sound that perfectly suits the intimate setting and ideally blends with the human voice?”, asks mezzo-soprano Markéta Cukrová. In this salon from the middle of the century, there is an encounter between the songs and piano music of the Czech composer Antonín Dvořák and his predecessor, Prague’s most influential figure of the first half of the 19th century Václav Jan Tomášek, and their French colleagues Hector Berlioz and César Franck. “Berlioz actually met Tomášek while visiting Prague,” says Prague Spring Festival programming director Josef Třeštík. “And in 2022, exactly 200 years will have passed since Franck’s birth, so his music will be heard on a number of programmes throughout the festival”, he adds.
Representing Dvořák’s music on the programme will be his Songs Op. 2, a revision of the cycle Cypresses, and from Tomášek there will be selections from his Eclogues for piano, in which the composer fully embraced the spirit of Romanticism. We will also hear Les nuits d’été by Hector Berlioz with piano accompaniment. The French composer wrote the songs to texts by his friend Théophile Gautier, a Parisian bohemian poet. Today, Les nuits d’été are known in the composer’s orchestration, which came long in advance of other orchestral song cycles such as those of Gustav Mahler or Maurice Ravel. Concluding the programme is the Prélude, fugue et variation Op. 18, which César Franck originally wrote for organ.“We know that Dvořák himself was playing in Prague salons in the middle of the century and that new works by contemporary composers from around the world were circulating there,” says Ms Cukrová about the concept of the programme. “I am truly pleased that for the very first time Dvořák’s songs will be heard in Prague in a possibly surprising combination with a fortepiano and together with Les nuits d’été by Berlioz and rarely heard songs by César Franck. The aesthetics of these three Romantic composers have much in common. As amazed as we are by the monumentality of the oratorios and symphonies of Late Romanticism, it is good to remember the tender beginnings of that epoch and the colourful sound, lyricism, and emotionality of chamber works.”
The mezzo-soprano Markéta Cukrová is a prominent figure on the Czech music scene. Se is able to captivate listeners with her performances of music that is often unfamiliar, but she can also give riveting talks about singing, think in broad contexts, and pass on her experiences. For this reason, she is a sought-after teacher, especially at summer courses, and also a dramaturge and occasionally a journalist as well. Her Czech translation of the book True Singing by the renowned vocal pedagogue Margreet Honig was published recently. She manages to do all of this alongside her busy career as a concert and operatic artist.
Apart from having sung in a children’s choir, her vocal training began relatively late. Having finished her studies of English at Charles University, she completed a three-year internship at the State Conservatoire in Bratislava, and she crowned her vocal training with lessons under the vocal pedagogue Marie Urbanová. Today, she regards the fact that she did not undergo formal musical training as a great advantage. “There is something very strange about real singing. It forces me to forget about my cares, to clear my mind, and to listen. It stimulates my imagination and curiosity. It is a combination of good use of the body’s resonance, the beauty of the voice, intelligence, a personal message, and musicality. When I listen to such singing, I feel refreshed”, she told the web KlasikaPlus, summing up her ideas and artistic credo.
Markéta Cukrová began as an interpreter of early music. In that field, she has been heard by the public in Europe and overseas with renowned Czech and foreign orchestras (Collegium 1704, Musica Florea, La Risonanza, Mala Punica, Collegium Vocale Gent, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment etc.).
Gradually, she expanded into opera and music of the Romantic and later eras, collaborating with such conductors as Jiří Bělohlávek, Jakub Hrůša, Marko Ivanović, and Jan Latham-Koenig and with orchestras including the Czech Philharmonic, the Prague Symphony Orchestra, and the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra. Her repertoire also contains no lack of music of the 20th century or contemporary music. For the role of The Pilgrim in the Brno production of the opera L’Amour de loin by the contemporary Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, she was nominated for a Thalia Award. According to the journal Harmonie, “The music is so sensitively written and sophisticated that if it is sung by a performer capable of working with details, emotions, vocal colouring, musical structure, melismas, and free tone, an extraordinary moment is born. And that was exactly what happened with Markéta Cukrová, who took this approach throughout the opera.”
There are no stylistic labels for this singer, who tries to go after the music’s essence. But that requires respect for the period concept of sound. That was the premise of the album that Markéta Cukrová recorded with Antonín Dvořák’s Moravian Duets accompanied by the composer’s piano. Her recital for the Prague Spring festival is again with a period piano.
Her chamber music partner on the fortepiano is Gottlieb Wallisch. He comes from a Viennese musical family. As a prodigy, he was admitted to a college of music even before he reached the age of seven. At 12 years of age he made his debut at the Golden Hall of the Musikverein playing Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto under the baton of Yehudi Menuhin.
He has several competition prizes to his credit, and today he is a sought-after soloist at home and abroad. In Vienna, he plays an indispensable part in important musical anniversaries. The Musikverein invited him for a recital series on the occasion of the Mozart Year of 2001 and the Haydn Year of 2009. Again in 2020, for the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven he was involved in important activity. Together with the Orchester Wiener Akademie and the conductor Martin Hengelböck, as part of the Resound Beethoven project he recorded all five of the composer’s piano concertos and the transcription of the Violin Concerto in D major. On this occasion, Wallisch used an original instrument from Beethoven’s time. “He has confirmed himself to be an exceptional interpreter of Beethoven”, wrote one critic. “His playing is of amazing nuance and depth. (…) His articulation and pedalling are perfect.”
However, the label of a specialist in the Viennese classics would be too narrow for Wallisch, whose recorded repertoire includes true rarities. He has long dedicated himself to the jazz-influenced piano music of the 20th century, which he is recording as part of a project titled 20th Century Foxtrots. On the first CD of that series he recorded, among other things, the music of Bohuslav Martinů, Karel Boleslav Jirák, and Alois Hába, or the famous Bugatti Step by Jaroslav Ježek. Recently he has been devoting himself to the music of the Czech composer Jaromír Weinberger.
He has taught at the University of Geneva and at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music Budapest. Gottlieb Wallisch is now a professor of piano at the Berlin University of the Arts.