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Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1938)
Sur un sentier recouvert (1911) [33:07]
Sonate 1.X. (1905) [14:51]
Dans les brumes (1912) [20:29]
Hélène Couvert (piano)
rec. L’eglise St Marcel, Paris, 27 November to 1 December 2006
Experience Classicsonline

I’ve listed the titles above as they appear on this disc, but before anyone gets too excited, the more obscure sounding titles translate as On an Overgrown Path and In the Mist, and are some of Janáček’s best known piano pieces. Readers looking for a complete set of the piano works are politely steered towards that on Arcodiva rather than that with Håkon Austbo on Brilliant Classics, which has some fine qualities but in the end is rather dull and uninspiring to my ears. For these pieces I’ve compared this new recording by Hélène Couvert to that covering the same programme from Josef Páleníček on a 1990 Supraphon CD of his 1972 recordings 10 1481-2. This seems to be hard to come by at the moment, but has been re-released as part of an attractive looking 2005 two disc set with the Concertino and Capriccio.
I wouldn’t normally start a review with flurries of alternatives, but these are popular pieces, and Hélène Couvert’s new CD has to be seen in context. For a start, she takes over 14 minutes longer over the same programme than Páleníček, so this might give you an idea of what to expect. I’m not against taking a broader view of this or any other music, and the comparably resonant acoustic in which her performances have been recorded do support a more elegiac style of playing. These pieces come from a period in Janáček’s life when he was isolated and lonely. They were dark years, in which his daughter Olga died, his married life was not going well, and his operatic output was being rejected in Prague. There is a lot of grief and impotent rage in both On an Overgrown Path and In the Mist, and the Sonata 1.X.1905, originally titled Street Scene, or From the Street, 1 October 1905 is descriptive of the death of a Czech worker killed during a nationalist rally in Brno, and including all of the emotional turmoil and fury which was the composer’s response. This was also a time of a crisis of confidence, with Janáček destroying scores including as much of the Sonata as he could get his hands on, the surviving movements having been rescued by the pianist at the premiere.
Beautiful as Hélène Couvert’s playing undoubtedly is, I don’t hear much of the stress, angst, fear and fury which lies behind the notes. She is very good with the longing, nostalgic, sometimes almost sentimental aspects of the music, but the craggy interruptions, symbolic screeching owls and disturbing, uneasy imagery of the Sonata and elsewhere are ironed somewhat flat in a gorgeous boudoir of perfect, perfumed piano playing. Yes, there is contrast, but when compared with Páleníček the tears and anguish are hidden behind a gauze of gorgeousness. Take the Molto adagio of In the Mist and you will hear immediately what I mean. Páleníček brings out howling, almost vocal lines which drag at your emotional reserves and either make you want to hide behind the sofa or rend your garments in despair. Couvert does none of these things for me. There are no tears in a very flat sounding V pláči, and the final presto of In the Mist times in at 6:24 to Páleníček’s 4:00: ’nuff said. There are moments when she seems more interested in the sound of the piano than with the intent of the music. Take The Holy Virgin of Frýdek movement, number 4 of On an Overgrown Path, where relishing the fine resonance of the low notes almost seems to take over at times. Admittedly, a certain amount of lingering sustain is a fine thing here and there, and can be a reflection of the origins of some of these pieces as having originally been written for harmonium. It does however sometimes seem as if Couvert is listening more to the instrument than to the composer. 
Don’t get me wrong, this is a beautifully recorded and performed disc. If you’ve tried Janáček’s piano music and found it a bit much to handle then this could well be the one for you. This is a romantic Janáček as seen through the lenses of Erik Satie or Claude Debussy, and I don’t deny anyone the right to approach these pieces in that way – vive la difference as they say. To my ear however, the emotive poetry of this music has more to express than is given us in this nice, safe rendition.
Dominy Clements                                 


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