Wednesday, December 8, 2010


Mr. Culture is off for a holiday break in the States, so the reviews are on hiatus until the new year. However, the calendar will be kept fresh – there’s a wealth of great seasonal music in Prague this month.

And here are some Christmas gift suggestions. Along with outstanding musicians, the Czech Republic is blessed with good music labels, and friends at two of my favorites – Supraphon and Indies Scope – were kind enough to pass along some of their latest releases for review. Once again, there’s an impressive array of original sounds and high-caliber performances. Share them with friends, and you’ll also be supporting a deserving local music industry.


Hot stuff! A clever and witty blend of jazz, rock and techno, with dashes of reggae rhythms and gypsy violin. Great dance music, but the razor-sharp production and smart arrangements make it well worth a sit-down listen. Frank Zappa is mentioned as one of the references, though what this disc really brings to mind is the high-octane ’80s new wave band Oingo Boingo. Fresh, fast-paced and good fun. (Indies Scope)

Tara Fuki/Sens

Their fourth release finds the cello/vocalist duo in a more intimate mood, forgoing flashy production and digressions into other genres in favor of meditative melody lines and gentle, yearning vocals. As always, the effect is haunting, a journey to inner depths and faraway places. Dorota Barová offers evocative improv vocals on two cuts, “Tobě” and “Moment,” and Andrea Konstankiewicz makes tasty use of her hang, a type of steel drum. Ten years after they started, Tara Fuki still has one of the most original sounds around. (Indies Scope)

Poletíme?/Jednoduché písničky o složitém životě

The band describes their music as “original banjo punk future jazz,” a good description of a repertoire that veers wildly from dance hall waltzes to Dixieland-style clap-along revelry. Gypsy flavors, touches of Balkan horns and a driving banjo fuel a raucous sound that rivals the reckless energy of Gogol Bordello. The lyrics are impenetrable Czech, but the enthusiasm is contagious. Also check out group’s newest release, Skupina dobře vypadajících mužů. (Indies Scope)

That’s just a small sampling of the incredible variety on the Indies label, where you’ll also find great groups like the Yellow Sisters, Traband, Jablkoň and Už jsme doma. See and hear more at:

Zuzana Lapčiková/Marija Panna přečistá

An imaginative crossover project that works. For this recording of Moravian Advent and Christmas songs, the smart folks at Supraphon paired Lapčiková, a Moravian folksinger and cimbalom player, with a gypsy violinist and members of her jazz quintet. The result is a bright, engaging sound that takes on new dimensions with every cut. Lapčiková’s voice is a perfect fit with the music, which ranges from spiritual meditations to holiday exuberance. This one is good listening any time of year. (Supraphon)

Collegium Marianum/František Jiránek Concertos & Sinfonias

The latest release in Supraphon’s “Music from Eighteenth-Century Prague” series features the work of an overlooked Czech composer who studied in Venice, likely under the direct tutelage of Antonio Vivaldi. So it’s not surprising that a lot of the music sounds like Vivaldi lite, or at least reflects the dominant Italian style of early 1700s. However, the solo bassoon lines are Jiránek’s own, played expertly on this disc by early music specialist Sergio Azzolini. Collegium Marianum provides top-notch backing on period instruments, led by spirited flute lines from Jana Semerádová. A smart, soothing addition to any Baroque collection. And watch for the next in the series due out imminently, a recording of Anton Reichenauer concertos by Vacláv Luks’ Collegium 1704 ensemble. (Supraphon)

Prague Philharmonia/Má Vlast

The opening concert honors at Prague Spring this year went to the Prague Philharmonia, a surprise given the orchestra’s junior status. But as this recording of their performance attests, the players were up to the challenge. Under the baton of rising star Jakub Hrůša, they gave a spirited rendition of Smetana’s seminal cycle of symphonic poems, showing a nice combination of emotional expression and technical finesse. While not a commanding or definitive version of Má Vlast, this disc offers an informed but accessible entree point to Smetana’s oeuvre – and an important historical marker for a growing ensemble. (Supraphon)

Ivo Kahánek/Chopin Scherzi & Sonata No. 3

Does the world really need another Chopin recording? Probably not, but Kahánek chose pieces that are not often recorded, and certainly has something original to say with them. In particular, his ability to find common threads in the four disparate scherzi opens some new doors. Eschewing a purely virtuoso approach in favor of a more open, dramatic style, Kahánek manages to play with both control and spontaneity. A thoughtful work, mostly for aficionados. (Supraphon)

Pavel Haas Quartet/Dvořák String Quartets in G major(Op. 106) & F major (Op. 96)

In February, Gramaphone magazine ran a photo of this award-winning ensemble on its cover with the headline, “The World’s Most Exciting String Quartet?” There was no need to add the question mark, at least for this reviewer. The quartet brings a unique energy and flavor to everything it touches, and this recording is no exception, bursting with the New World enthusiasm and inspiration that Dvořák felt in America. Unfortunately, the quartet doesn’t play in Prague often; they’re too much in demand abroad. This recording shows why. (Supraphon)

Check out other new Supraphon releases and the label’s impressive catalog at:

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