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Intimate Studies
Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
In the Mist - piano cycle in four movements (1912-1913) [18:14]
Intimate Studies - eleven tone poems and studies (1896-1928) [9:08]
Pavel HAAS (1899-1944)
Suite for Piano Op. 13 (1935) [14:04]
Allegro Moderato (1938) [1:42]
Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
Film en Miniature H.148 (1925) [12:38]
Spring H.127 (1921) [3:33]
Josef SUK (1874-1935)
Spring Op.22a (1902) [17:35]
Lada Valešová (piano)
rec. St George's, Bristol, April 2008
AVIE AV2142 [75:43]
Experience Classicsonline

In some ways this disc reminds me of Steffen Schleiermacher's survey of inter-war Czech piano music called Czech Avant-Garde Piano Music: 1918-1938 (see review). The two discs share the Haas Suite, the Martinů Film en Miniature and some of the Janáček's Intimate Studies; Schleiermacher plays six, Lada Valešová eleven. Whilst the Czech pianist concentrates on core native repertoire with Suk's Spring and Janáček's In the Mist her competitor ploughs Dadaist and Ragtime furrows with works by Ježek and Schulhoff.

Valešová's focus therefore is wider than Schleiermacher's and her playing offers something of a corrective to his more statuesque pianism. Her Martinů outclasses his in terms of rhythmic acuteness and characterisation. It comes into competition with Giorgio Koukl's unfurling Naxos complete piano music edition - the relevant volume here is No.2 (8.557918). In outline these pithy, pictorial miniatures can take a degree of latitude. Koukl's playing is a little more extrovert but in detail the newcomer impresses powerfully. She plays off the Tango's Ježek-derived moments with its impressionist glint and she adduces wit very nicely. She's playful too in the Scherzo where Koukl is a bit quicker. Her Berceuse is taken at a quick pace, Koukl preferring to find more regret in it than she does. The tart and mordant modernity of the Valse is splendidly realised here and the following Chanson is verdant and pithy; her softer take contrasts with Koukl's more up-front reading. Schleiermacher is sympathetic but too slow. Bright and sparkling her Carillon finale doesn't slow for the noble central panel as much as Koukl does.

The collection that gives its title to this disc was published for the first time in 1994. It consists of eleven tone poems and studies - either miniatures in themselves or incomplete. Some were in Janáček's 'Intimate Diary' and obviously relate to his relationship with Kamila Stösslová; others were occasional in origin; one is a lovely setting of a carol, another is an adaptation of a Slovak folk-song dedicated to his daughter Olga. Not all were available one supposes to Schleiermacher but in any case the more idiomatic playing of Valešová is strongly to be preferred, especially in the Melody (tr. 7) where she vests it with terrific life, and the piece without title (tr. 6) where the heaviness of the MDG is no real match for the Avie.

In the Mists is a rather interesting performance for its unusually weighty outer movements. Both Firkušný in his RCA recording (now in a collection; 743211845922) and Jan Jiraský playing the composer's own piano (Czech Radio CR02982131) offer different kinds of approach. The former's playing is informed by acquaintance with the composer, the latter from the demands of playing his piano. Limpid and reflective the newcomer's opening contrasts with the more forward-moving Firkušný and Jiraský but she does achieve sufficient differentiation between this and the following movement. The lighter action and lesser sustain of the composer's piano add their own fascinating gloss to the Czech Radio reading. Her finale is not as darting or quicksilver as the older compatriots.

Pavel Haas's Suite was written in fiery optimism in 1935. Both he and the work's dedicatee Bernard Kaff were, six years later, to be incarcerated in Terezin together, from which Haas was to be transported to his death in 1944. Valešová plays this five movement piece with great insight, more motoric in the first movement than the competition, and ensuring that plenty of textual colour is audible in slow movement where her teaky rises and falls have an art deco clarity. Her performance is also much better recorded than the MDG disc. This is fine playing - agile, dextrous, insightful, characterised with probing assurance. A very brief and pawky Allegro moderato (1938) receives a world premiere recording.

Suk's Spring is one of those high-tide points of Czech late-romanticism. I find her championing of it highly impressive, although some might prefer a faster tempo in the opening. Igor Ardašen, for example (Supraphon SU 3183-2131) on an all-Czech disc prefers a lither and more dramatic entrée but there's no doubting Valešová's verdant warmth. Her second movement breezes are more playful than his, and in the fourth movement - marked *** by Suk - we find that she makes almost explicit parallels between Suk and Janáček, not least in the arrestingly rhythmic writing; Ardašen is more pliantly romanticised. The songfully reflective final movement is a kind of Píseň lásky.

This is a delightful recital, warmly and sensitively played. The programme is unique though thematically similar to the MDG, but the musicianship and perception are altogether in another class.

Jonathan Woolf  


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