Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
From the Street
Sonata 1.X.1905 (Z Ulice – From the Street) (Presentiment [6:20]; Death [7:59]) [14:19]
Po zarostlém chodníčku – On an overgrown path (Our evenings [3:34]; A blown-away leaf [3:16]; Come with us! [1:02]; The Frýdek Madonna [3:57]; They chattered like swallows [2:33]; Words fail! [2:01]; Good night! [2:52]; Unutterable anguish [3:50]; In tears [3:05]; The owl has not flown away! [4:01]) [30:11]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Valses nobles et sentimentales [15:47]
Sergey PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Sonata no.2 in D minor, Op.14 [18:38]
Ivana Gavric (piano)
rec. The Music Room, Champs Hill, Sussex, UK, 22-24 April and 30 May 2011

It is small wonder that so many pianists have chosen to include in their repertoire, and record, Janáček’s piano music. There is something hugely expressive and deeply emotional about it that pianists obviously relate to and relish the opportunity to convey. The sonata 1.X.1905, also known by its subtitle From the Street, was written as a direct result of an incident in which Janáček himself was involved. On that day there was a demonstration in Brno - capital of Moravia, now the Czech Republic, but then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire - by some German speakers and their supporters. This was against the proposed establishment of a Czech university in the town and, naturally, there was a counter demonstration. During this demonstration a young Czech joiner FrantiŠek Pavlík, was bayoneted by Austrian troops. Janáček, who observed this from the town’s meeting house and later attended Pavlík’s funeral, along with 10,000 others, was so moved by the event that he felt compelled to express his horror in music which had its premičre in January 1906.

We are lucky that the pianist who gave that premičre had the presence of mind to keep a copy of it since Janáček was dissatisfied and threw it into the Vltava river, having previously burned a third movement prior to its first performance. Something I believe is key to interpreting the Janáček works on this disc is the correct pace and tempo and knowing just how long a pause to leave on occasions. In the sonata Ivana Gavric has these aspects absolutely nailed making her performance nigh on perfect. In his piano music Janáček shows his mastery at reflecting the most heart-wrenching despair and all pervasive sadness. When the pianist is able to convey that too the experience is truly profound. This is an example of just that. The final note of Death which represents the moment when that occurs is really telling, being cut off from the completion of the phrase. Janáček’s On an overgrown path gradually grew, firstly following a request from fellow music teacher Josef Vávra for ‘the most beautiful Slavonic melodies harmonized in an easy style’. Janáček responded with an offer of six pieces he described as ‘moods’. These were written for harmonium and only later transcribed for piano. The six pieces were later given titles . Apart from the Piu mosso, which was not published in his lifetime but later became the first of the three pieces making up his Paralipomena, they remain as parts of the cycle of ten pieces known as On an overgrown path (Book One). The first five are descriptive of childhood memories. The next four represent his crushing grief at the death of his daughter Olga aged 21 in 1903. Janáček wrote to a musicologist friend about number 8 Unutterable anguish, saying ‘perhaps you will sense the weeping in it’. It is testimony to his ability to describe such emotions in music that you certainly can sense the tears. The tenth piece, which he had written before his daughter’s death, is entitled The Barn Owl has not flown away. It is inspired by a Moravian folk tale which says that if a barn owl - in another recording it’s translated as a tawny owl! - perches outside a window and screeches, but cannot be driven away, then someone in the house will die. On my Supraphon vinyl record of Ivan Klánský playing these pieces the translation is perhaps more descriptive as The bird of ill omen lingers. In any event it is a tragically apt piece with which to end the section portraying this terrible event in his life.

As with the sonata Gavric has the pace absolutely correct and the spaces between notes are finely measured. This makes for a quite thrilling musical experience and helps confirm these short pieces as sublime works for the piano, especially so in this case.

Following what is a really emotional, not to say harrowing, listen to the pieces describing Janŕček’s unbearable anguish at the loss of his daughter Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales come as a relief. Gavric shows she can reflect light as well as darkness though her forte is quite clearly most powerfully expressed in a sombre sound-world. It is interesting that these Valses were published in 1911 the same year Janŕček brought out his first completed book of On an overgrown path. Indeed Prokofiev began writing his second piano sonata only a year later. Gavric cleverly highlights the similarities between the works all of which require a subtlety in timing which she brings with consummate ease. Ravel was born 21 years after Janŕček and Prokofiev 16 years after Ravel. This shows in their more modern approach to their compositions. Despite the dates they were published being almost identical Janŕček’s writing clearly belongs to the previous century. Ravel’s more experimental sound is of the new 20th century. Prokofiev’s belongs firmly in the 20th century and could easily have been composed at least twenty or more years later. It is very modern in its sound. Prokofiev was a mere 21 when he wrote it, shortly after his first piano concerto was premičred. The playing here is again beautifully paced and with the necessary power. The first movement is particularly impressive as is the slow movement which is full of gentle delicacy superbly phrased. The last is a real whirlwind of cascading notes which make the abrupt end really telling. I hope she explores his music further. The whole disc is a real joy which I expect to go back to very often. I shall be looking out most keenly for Ivana Gavric’s next disc and if it’s anything like as good as this one it’ll be well worth waiting for!

Steve Arloff

I shall be looking out most keenly for Ivana Gavric’s next disc and if it’s anything like as good as this one it’ll be well worth waiting for!