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If it’s the Czech works you’re after, do not hesitate

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

BARGAIN OF THE MONTH

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Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1938)
Complete Piano Works: Capriccioa [19’39]; Concertinob (1925) [16’47]; Tema con variazioni (Zdenka’s Variations) (1880) [9’25]; V mlhách (In the mists) (1912) [two versions: 13’51 and 13’42]; Vzpomínka (Reminiscence) [two versions: 1’07 and 1’09]; Po zarostlém chodníčku I (On an Overgrown Path I) (1911) [25’51]; Po zarostlém chodníčku II (On an Overgrown Path II) [10’54]; Piano Sonata I;X;1905, ‘Z ulice’ (‘From the Street’) (1905) [12’58]
Jan Jiraský (piano); aJiří Ševčík (flute); aJiří Houdek, aMarek Vajo (trumpets); aStanislav Penk, aPetr Fríd, aPavel Čermák (trombones); aJiří Nauš (tuba)/aLubomir Mátl; bPavel Wallinger; bJan Vašta (violin); bMiroslav Kovář (viola); bVít Spilka (clarinet); bRoman Novozámský (bassoon); bJindřich Petráš (french horn).
Rec. abDominova Studio, Prague, on 6, 13 April 2004
ARCODIVA UP 0071-2 132 [126’25: 61’22 + 65’03]

 

A vastly laudable project that includes a real bonus. V mlhách and Vzpomínka are heard twice (once on each disc), the first time played on Janáček’s own piano, and secondly on a modern concert grand; the actual make is unstated. More of that soon, but let it be stated first and foremost that the value of this enterprise lies in Jiraský’s eminently musical approach to these works. They seem to be receiving more and more recorded exposure although concert performances still seem rare, at least in the UK.

The set begins with the two works for piano and ensemble. First is the Capriccio for piano left hand, flute, two trumpets, three trombones and tuba, as strange a combination as you are likely to meet. Yet it works supremely well, thanks to Janáček’s supremely keen aural imagination. The work opens in distinctly Neo-Classical mode. The staccato brass, march-like, make Stravinsky seem remarkably close by, yet with a Czech accent. This is quirky but endlessly fascinating music, especially when played like this. Jiraský’s articulation is pearly-clear, and some of the brass playing is jaw-droppingly good - trumpets especially.

The slow movement, placed second, is a tender adagio. There is a tremendous sense of space here from the piano at the beginning; the brass’s retort could come from no other composer in its repetitions of a tiny motivic cell. The brass sound is notably Czech – creamy, with occasional slight, non-intrusive vibrato – astonishingly ear-friendly. Janáček’s contrasts of timbre, tempo and material are expertly negotiated. Sometimes it is easy to believe that the word ‘transition’ was not in Janáček’s vocabulary! The third movement’s sound-world sounds strange to these ears – a sort of Czech Besses-o’-th’-Barn, with piano scalic comments cut from crystal. The flute does rather appear to be playing straight into the microphone – either that or an engineer decided we needed to hear flautist Jiří Ševčík more. Ševčík does, however, play the pastoral flute melody that opens the fairly dark-coloured finale perfectly.

The Concertino is arguably the better known ensemble piece. I like Jiraský’s way with the single-line opening, the way each note speaks, as well as the way he welcomes the almost Chopinesque lines that appear during the course of this movement, married to Janáček’s sometimes disjunct way. Contrasts reach a peak in the third movement, wherein some gestures are positively filmic in their largesse! The light finale is a magical way to end.

The first solo work we hear is the early Tema con variazioni (Zdenka’s Variations), a piece written as a composition exercise while the composer was in Leipzig (the Zdenka of the title is Zdenka Schulzová). The theme itself is eminently approachable, with real tendresse about it. Janáček’s imagination enjoys free-ish reign. The sustained note-values against proto-typical quirky, short, nervous figures is particularly interesting in light of the composer’s later musical development. Moments of repose are uniformly lovely; just a shame that the very end is so abrupt. A miscalculation of youth, surely.

No such miscalculations in the much better known V mlhách (‘In the Mists’), a work of pure genius. On disc one, as mentioned above, we hear them on Janáček’s own piano, now held in the Janáček museum Brno. Of course, musically we enter a new world in terms of harmonic and motivic exploration here. It has to be said that the lighter, brighter sound of Janáček’s piano does not diminish the gorgeous, languorous first movement one iota. The harmonic ‘twist’ that characterises the opening chordal sequence of the second movement is all the more effective for Jiraský’s decision not to over-milk it. Indeed, this straightforward approach precludes any suggestion of meandering.

The piano sounds tinny, unfortunately, at levels of forte and above as the third movement amply demonstrates. How interesting it is that in the finale the piano almost sounds more like a cimbalom!

The short Vzpomínka (‘Reminiscence’) is memorable despite its brevity, trailing off hauntingly, like some disappearing memory.

The much better-known ‘On the Overgrown Path’ is, under Jiraský’s fingers, a journey into the sweet pain of reminiscence. He refuses to dawdle, though - a characteristic of his playing - and the music emerges the fresher for it. Particularly impressive is the sixth movement of I, ‘Dobrou noc!’ (‘Good Night!’), as disturbingly barren a night-time valediction as you are likely to hear. The opening of the last movement could be more explosive a gesture; a rare example of Jiraský underselling Janáček.

The contrasts inherent in the Second volume of pieces are more marked, and here Jiraský does give them full weight. His highlighting of the folk-dance element of the final ‘Vivo’ is most effective.

The Sonata I.X.1906, ‘Z ulice’ provides plenty of opportunity for Jiraský to show his timbral sensitivity. Trills take on real emotive and structural import much in the way they do in late Beethoven. They are no longer ornamental. Jiraský uses perhaps less pedal than most indeed some may find the left-hand staccato at the climax somewhat dry and abrupt. The second movement (subtitled ‘Smrt’ – ‘Death’) has a truly hopeless beginning, and a sense of barely controlled urgency, nay panic, later. Impressive.

V mlhách and Vzpomínka recur, now on a more decadent modern grand. To these ears, the cantabile of the first movement works. Certainly the second movement (‘Molto adagio’) sounds more harmonically luxuriant here, and the piano’s extra depth seems to add an extra layer of meaning also to the final Presto. But it is up to the listener to decide preference and I would suggest we are lucky indeed to have the choice.

Unhesitatingly recommended.

Colin Clarke



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