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CD: Crotchet

Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
Sinfonietta (1926) [23:01]
Glagolitic Mass (1926) [39:03]
Concertino (1925) [16:31]
Capriccio (1926) [20:07]
Violin Sonata (1921) [18:38]
The Diary of One Who Disappeared (1919) [33:04]
Piano pieces:
A Reminiscence [1:03]
In memoriam [2:24]
Andante [0:48]
Moderato [1:02]
The Golden Ring [0:13]
I wait for you [0:46]
Christ the Lord is born [0:46]
see end of review for performer details
rec. 1981-2001
EMI CLASSICS 2376062 [78:59 + 79:27]
Experience Classicsonline

Even by Janáček’s own standards, the Concertino of 1925 is an extraordinary piece. At scarcely more than a quarter of an hour, it is, nonetheless, a real concerto - in miniature. For one thing, the composer specifies that the piano part is to be played from memory (“memoried” as it appears in the score). The first movement has a kind of classical exposition repeat, and the coda of the finale is preceded by an immense - in miniature - piano peroration. The instrumentation contributes much to the work’s very particular character: there are two violins, a viola, an E flat clarinet alternating with the usual, B flat instrument, a horn and a bassoon. The first movement is simply a duet for piano and horn, and the second for piano and E flat clarinet, except for the last five bars where the whole ensemble makes a sudden and surprising appearance. In the remaining two movements the instruments, with one beguiling exception, take very much a supporting role. That exception is the clarinet in the slower, middle section of the third movement, where a beautiful series of arabesques creates an exquisite nocturnal atmosphere. The instrumental ensemble in the Capriccio is just as strange: flute doubling piccolo, two trumpets, three trombones and tuba. The work is a tougher nut to crack than the Concertino: the colours are dark - to be expected given the instrumentation - and the piano writing, for left hand only, is largely subsidiary to that of the ensemble, with much figuration, scales and runs. There is a fair amount of contrast in its four movements, but it is not so fine a work as the Concertino.

These two works originally appeared in 1996 on a disc from EMI France, along with two cello works and the present performance of the Violin Sonata with Mikhail Rudy as partner to violinist Pierre Amoyal. Seven years were needed before Janáček was satisfied with the work’s final form, but most of it was actually composed in 1914 and undoubtedly represents the composer’s response to the outbreak of war, and in particular to the events taking place in the Balkans at that time. Julian Haylock, in the brief accompanying note, evokes the sonata’s violent changes of mood, though these do not feature in the meditative slow movement which was composed even earlier, and separately, from the rest. The scherzo begins with a folk-like motif reminiscent of the adorable love music from the end of Act 2 of Kát’a Kabanová, and the finale, though once again featuring changes of mood, is largely elegiac in nature.

The performances of all three works are excellent and recorded in very good sound. We might not particularly associate French musicians with the music of Janáček, but of course the two concertante pieces are conducted by the composer’s greatest non-Czech interpreter, Sir Charles Mackerras. I have recently encountered his first recording of the Sinfonietta, recorded for Pye in 1959, and it is a revelation. The playing is superb and the conductor shows how profound was his understanding of the composer even fifty years ago and at the very beginning of the Janáček revival. Simon Rattle’s Janáček performances were well received when they appeared. I bought them myself and was very impressed, but rehearing them now I am not so sure. They are certainly very well played. The Philharmonia strings manage the often stratospheric writing in the Sinfonietta at least as well as their foreign counterparts. I was taken by surprise by a sudden piano/crescendo in the opening and closing fanfares, unmarked in the score, and ineffective to my ears. It’s a detail, perhaps not very important and in any event a question of taste. What is more serious is the overall feeling that these readings are just a bit too comfortable. The second movement of the Sinfonietta, for example, is too straight laced, and the fourth movement lacks character, the final bars short on jubilation. The opening of the finale feels very slow, with little sense of anticipation of what is to come, though the trombones do growl deliciously later on. In spite of four excellent vocal soloists - better, and more idiomatic than I had remembered - and some superb choral singing, I feel the same about Rattle’s performance of the extraordinary Glagolitic Mass. Jane Parker-Smith’s playing of the famous organ Intrada pulls no punches, so I’m disappointed to report a registration so thick and heavy as to take away much of the music’s impact. I’m no organ expert, but listening to Karel Ančerl’s 1963 performance on Supraphon you can hear every astonishing note. These are fine performances, then, but they are short on that quality in Janáček’s music which gives the impression that the composer was almost out of control, even unhinged. Mackerras, in both works, finds more of this whilst at the same time keeping a firm hand on the tiller. Most Czech performances, those conducted by Ančerl, for example, have it in abundance. 

The Diary of One Who Disappeared
is a song-cycle like no other. Twenty-one songs and a piano interlude tell the story of a young man so enthralled by a gypsy girl that he fathers her child and leaves his family and homeland to be with her. At the heart of the work the girl herself appears, and Ruby Philogene’s singing here is such that others amongst us would probably not have resisted! An offstage trio of women’s voices provides atmosphere for this, the most crucial, and the most erotic, part of the story. Ian Bostridge is magnificent. He feels the music superbly well, pacing the drama and using a variety of vocal colour to bring the story to life. (It’s a sad fact, though, that the lack of any text or even a summary of the story in the accompanying booklet is an important, probably a fatal, handicap.) I’m no Czech speaker, but his pronunciation sounds authentic. But his is a very English tenor voice, and what is more, his performance, too, lacks that wildness I refer to above. A fascinating Supraphon disc (SU 0022-2 201) has two performances of the cycle on it, one from Nicolai Gedda, recorded in 1984, and the other by Beno Blachut from 1956, both with Josef Páleníček at the piano. Two examples will suffice to explain why those who really want to get to know this extraordinary work should acquire this disc. Both singers achieve a better synthesis of joy, excitement and playfulness in the short, stuttering song near the end - “Now she bears my child, see how bright, bright, bright her eyes are!” - than Bostridge does. And then there are the final bars of the work, where the hero announces that there can be no return to his former life, because “Zeffka waits for me there, in her arms is my son.” He is both exultant and appalled. The vocal line rises twice to a top C, the final note he sings. Bostridge and Gedda are exultant, Bostridge superb, Gedda, quite stunning. Only Blachut manages the extra element. When I first heard his performance a lifetime ago this passage made my hair stand on end. It still has a similar effect today.

The original issue of The Diary of One Who Vanished was coupled with a collection of short piano pieces, and so it is here. I haven’t been able to ascertain whether all the original pieces are included, nor from which of several possible Janáček collections they come, but anyone thinking of them as simple makeweights, especially given how short they are, should think again. Each of them creates a powerful atmosphere. Some of them are clearly based on, or inspired by, folk themes and, inevitably in such short pieces, frequently make use of a single, tiny repeated motif. They are exquisite, and anyone with seven minutes or so to spare in a busy life should sit down and listen to them one after another. Thomas Adès plays these pieces, as he does the often outlandish piano part of the Diary, with the utmost sensitivity and insight.

William Hedley 

Performer details
Philharmonia Orchestra/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. Kingsway Hall, London, November 1982

Glagolitic Mass
Felicity Palmer (soprano); Ameral Gunson (mezzo); John Mitchinson (tenor); Malcolm King (bass); Jane Parker-Smith (organ); City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Choir/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. Great Hall, Birmingham University, January 1981

Concertino, Capriccio, Sonata
Pierre Amoyal (violin); Mikhail Rudy (piano)
Soloists of the Opéra National de Paris/Sir Charles Mackerras
rec. Salle Ravel, Opéra Bastille, Paris, June 1995

Ian Bostridge (tenor); Ruby Philogene (mezzo); Thomas Adès (piano)
rec. St. George’s, Brandon Hill, Bristol, April 2001

Piano works
Thomas Adès (piano)
rec. Potton Hall, Suffolk, February 2000

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