(1881 - 1945) Allegro
(1854 - 1928) In the Mists (1912):
Sonata for Piano (1905)
(1910 - 1999) Three Piano Pieces (1947):
Piano Sonata (1958)
(1935 - 1999) Sonata for Piano No. VIII
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Bartok Allegro barbaro, Sz49
Balasz Szokolay, piano Naxos 8.556693
Janacek: In the Mists; Piano Sonata
Rudolf Firkusny (rec. 5/1971) München. Residenz Plenaarsal, DG
Rolf Hind (rec. 30-31. 7. 1990), South Hill Park, Bracknell, Factory 326
(In the Mists)
Every so often one comes across a CD that is a minor revelation. Of course
it is not like hearing Bach's Mass in B minor or Rachmaninov's Third
Piano Concerto for the first time, but something which strikes the imagination;
something one never knew existed.
Now I have long known that Janacek wrote music for the piano. However I have
never applied myself to it in any concentrated fashion. That is until I reviewed
the present CD.
Martin Kasik was born in 1976, so he is twenty-five years old. Already he
has a commanding technical ability and interpretative mastery. His playing
of the Sonata for Piano 1st October 1905 -Street Scene is
an eye-opener. For me it was a first performance. And a stunning one at that.
Janacek was a Moravian composer. Today he is perhaps best known for a small
number of impressive works. I need only mention Jenufa, the
Sinfonietta, the Glagolitic Mass, The Cunning Little Vixen
and the two String Quartets. Of course the enthusiast will enumerate
half a hundred other brilliant compositions. But the Sonata for Piano from
the early days of the twentieth century requires consideration as a masterpiece.
It was written as a protest against social and national oppression. The
background to the piece was a demonstration against a German National rally
in the city of Brno that led to considerable violence. A young Czech workman
called Frantisek Pavlik was killed in the rioting.
We are lucky to have this piece. Janacek was well known for revising his
music. The entire sonata was literally torn up by the composer. Fortunately
the pianist Ludmila Tuckova had made a copy of the first two movements. The
first movement is subtitled 'Premonition' and the second 'Death'. Yet somehow
there is hope as well as despair in these pages.
Martin Kasik brings this piece into focus. His tone is superb. So much light
and shade is evident in his playing. His excellent and imaginative interpretation
of this relatively unknown piece reveals Janacek as a master of the instrument.
The other work by Janacek is In the Mists - four short pieces which
once again are played with great sympathy by Martin Kasik. They deserve to
be better known.
The CD programme opens with Bela Bartók's well known 'war horse'
Allegro Barbaro. The folk music of Hungary as well as the 'modernism'
of his own day influenced Bartók. I have heard this piece played a
little more 'barbarously' in my time - however the present interpretation
is perfectly satisfying.
Klement Slavicky (1910-1999) was an unknown quantity to me. The two works
on this disk are representative of two of the composer's creative periods.
The Three Pieces, more of a Sonatina actually, were composed after
study with Joseph Suk and an intense absorption of the folk traditions of
The first piece is aggressive- almost Bartókian. Cross-rhythms and
polyrhythms are well in evidence. The final toccata has a great impetus -
full of fiendish pianistic writing.
The second work by Slavicky is his Piano Sonata Contemplation of Life.
This was from the last creative period of his life. It is much more 'romantic'
in tone than the Three Pieces. To try to give a flavour of its style
it is necessary to suggest a few comparisons. There are images of Debussy
here - especially in the slow movement. Barber's Piano Sonata springs to
mind with its neo-romantic pages. Perhaps the best description would be
'neo-Rachmaninov'. But all these allusions are worthless. It is a fine piece,
with a wide emotional sweep, encompassing a number of pianistic styles and
techniques. There are many tender and even delicate moments of pure pianism
in the last movement. There are passages of almost 'Chopinesque' beauty.
I would stick my neck out and say that the whole sonata is thoroughly romantic.
The slow movement to my ear tends to be a little aimless in its architecture
- but perhaps this is the composer's intention. The whole sonata is phenomenally
difficult to play and to interpret well. It is a masterpiece.
The final work in this varied programme is the Sonata for Piano No. VIII
by Lubos Fiser (1935-1999). This piece seems to me to be a mixture of styles
- perhaps too much so. The programme notes refers to Chopin as one of the
influences. I notice hints of Rachmaninov as well. The formal principle seems
to me to be a bit confused. I believe it is too short. There is so much good
material that seems to me to be under-developed. It reminded me of Joseph
Cooper on 'Face the Music' - a tune wrapped up in umpteen pastiches. I could
not easily discern the theme. Yet all this is too harsh. I need to hear more
of this composer's work to be able to judge what he is trying to say. And
somehow I actually quite like the piece.
There are one or two criticisms of this CD. I would have liked to have more
fulsome programme notes. I have remarked before that where composers are
less well known to the English-speaking public, more details about the composers'
lives and works need to be given to help us understand the situation of these
compositions. I would have liked to know what type of piano was used and
where and when the recording was made.
My main musical adventures have been in British, French and American music
- plus the 'classics'. And there is nothing wrong in specialising in these
fields. Yet this record and two others I have reviewed from the same company,
convince me that we need to make an effort to discover or perhaps re-discover
the music of the Czech and Slovakian Republics. It has so very much to offer.
From disc it is obvious that this tradition has forged its own direction.
This path may not have fully absorbed the avant-garde of the West. Perhaps
this is no bad thing. All these pieces both move and inspire.
Martin Kasik is a great pianist. He has impressed audiences in the Balkans.
He has played in the USA and Japan. He will soon impress audiences further
afield. I hope to hear much more from him in the future. And finally, I would
give a lot to review the CD of Martin playing Schumann and Rachmaninov. It
must be superb!
and Simon Jenner adds
This is quite important, a disc introducing a young pianist (b.1976) and
two composers, Klement Slavicky (1910-1999) and Lubos Fiser (1935-1999) to
a non-Czech public. These composers may have been featured elsewhere, but
Martin Kasik has been the winner of various competitions: Kil, Chopin at
Marienbad, Prague Spring International Competitions and Young Concert Artists,
New York, 1999. In this second disc (the other is of Schumann and Rachmaninov)
he proclaims his Nationalist breadth by centring the recital around Janacek,
though prefacing it with a lively Allegro Barbaro - Bartok's Hungarian
start to this otherwise all Czech recital. In the Bartók he holds
his own against, for instance, Szokolay, and plays with the obligatory aplomb
of the 24 year old.
He begins to emerge as a truly individual pianist with the next item, In
the Mists, which he plays less 'straight' than Firkusny. That is, he's
less direct, colouring his hesitation with the opening phrase before launching
the plangent main theme of the first movement. This is, he reminds us, about
loss and bereavement. All through the recital one is aware of Kasik's romantic
colouring and his sensitivity to romantic gesture. He is aided by the excellent
piano tone, rather close-miked and sounding healthy for it too. What Firkusny
does, quite uniquely, is allow the phrases to swell and die under his fingers,
colouring expressively whilst at the same time treating the main theme directly.
He invests the second movement with a reminiscent humour Kasik can't quit
manage. In the latter movements he doesn't release his forces until the repeat
of the first phrases give way to a descending glissando which in itself fulfils
all the descending figures of the work. Kasik plays these later movements
with great sensitivity, though allowing the main themes of the work, and
not the surrounding texture, to become coloured. Radoslav Kvapil's early
1990s recital was thought of highly, but yielded to Firkusny in this. Kvapil,
whom I've seen live, is an altogether earthier player even than Firkusny
at his most direct. He is more prone to snatch and stomp at his phrases,
and with great effect in say Smetana's Polkas, or Martinu, another Firkusny
preserve. Andsnes has been recently praised for an all-Janacek recital which
I've not heard.
To prove that Janacek isn't a national preserve, Rolf Hind included In
the Mists on one of his two eclectic Factory discs (among the first
post-modern discs of their kind, that paved the way for Kasik). Entitled
Country Music, it deconstructed that notion with works from Grainger
to Finnissy. Hind is a relevant comparator as he was about the same age as
Kasik and attempting something similar. He was already a more individual
and humorous player. He was prone to dramatic, even agogic hesitations, rather
like Kasik. disrupting Janacek slightly to make his interpretative point.
It's a slightly stronger reading.
Kasik comes into his own in the Piano Sonata in E flat minor, 'I. X. 1905:
In the Street'. This famously commemorates the worker killed in supporting
demonstrations in favour of a university at Brno. Here, the hesitations,
especially in the second (and last) movement, work as well as Firkusny's.
Kasik again began less directly than Firkusny in the first movement, but
Janacek can sustain either interpretation. Does Firkusny inject more desolation
into the last movement? Perhaps, but Kasik is a fine player, more obviously
romantic than some of his predecessors.
You wouldn't gauge this from his other works, particularly the next two items.
Slavicky whose work takes up most of the rest of the recital, gets far less
coverage than the more favoured Fiser. The most we can glean is his tuition
by Janacek and Suk, his absorption in Moravian folk music, and that he had
three periods: Suk, Czech modernism, and after the war spending more time
with one's folk music as one did ... The Slavicky Three Piano Pieces
date from 1947, so belong to the second of these two periods. Two outer sections
frame a contemplative but spiced meditation. The outer movements themselves
are highly attractive, memorable, very Martinu, but with rapid figures unusually
providing the main melody in the exciting Toccata finale. There's a faint
resemblance to Rawsthorne, though less sour, and perhaps proving that similar
influences, even Hindemith, were common to many.
The three movement Piano Sonata 'Contemplation of Life' (1958) is
the work of someone who knows what he can expect if he contemplates it too
overtly. The sound world is not far removed from various post-neo-classical
composers of the post-war period, progress having virtually stopped in
Czechoslovakia when the owners of Progress Publications moved in.
It's a romantic, big-boned work not far removed from Dutilleux's sonata of
1947. It seems the work of someone who knew something about the piano. A
memorable two-note motif builds up a powerful second movement. Kasik has
the measure of it. It recalls Janacek, and Suk. I think particularly about
some of those heart-stopping movements in Suk, for example, about his wife's
heart stopping, in About Mother. The repeated two-bar phrase suggests
some fate leitmotif running under the work. Martinu is recalled again in
the finale, recalling the urgency and pounding ostinato in the Double
Concerto, written as a reaction to the German occupation of 1938. What
does this tell us of Czechoslovakia in 1958? It settles down, but the mix
of Martinu and Dutilleux re-emerges for an almost Prokofievian run to the
Much is made of Fiser's status as 'a notable genius of the 20th century'.
This five and a half minute pendant is too brief to confirm any such thing.
One wonders if this also recently dead composer was closer to the note-writer.
Fiser was possessed of an 'original' voice at the time of his graduation.
This saw a Second Symphony (rather impressive, that Second). The sonata is
his final work. It's an impressive, epigrammatic post-Martinu piece. A quite
gestural but warm-hearted modernism is fined-down for death, as such pieces
can be. Sunset distilled through icy breath. It's a real pity that there
is not more Fiser. Sixty-six minutes isn't over-generous, and if you make
such claims, then do programme more Fiser. The idiom isn't really removed
from Slavicky, confirming the stasis in Czech modernism. Freedom will take
a new generation of composers to really benefit from it. When one thinks
of Haba and other quarter-tone composers, one realises how much has been
lost. A massive toll has been taken on Czech-Jewish composers in the war
(perhaps the worst sustained in any country) and after that, by over 40 years
of repression. Finally of course, the West compounds the problem by ignoring
of these composers. That at least has been addressed here. Once doctrinaire
modernists have faded, at least the conservative values of much fine music
can be appreciated. The thread that ran from Bohemian composers through Smetana
to Martinu to Haba has been rather lost in the ruins.
This disc surveys gifted composers whose work needs exploring. Martin Kasik
is gifted too. One hopes he can continue this journey, and not be deflected
into an overly stocked mainstream.
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