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Leos JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
Sonata for Violin and Piano [16:55]
Bedřich SMETANA (1824-1884)
From the Homeland: Two Pieces for Violin and Piano [11:09]
Sergey PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Sonata for Violin Solo, Op.115 [12:04]
Sonata for Violin and Piano No.1 in F minor, Op.80 [26:38]
Josef špaček (violin - Jean Baptiste Vuillaume, 1855) and Miroslav Sekera (piano)
rec. Dvořák Hall, Rudolfinum, Prague, December 2012
SUPRAPHON SU 4129-2 [67:18]

When I met a fellow reviewer recently one thing we both agreed with wholeheartedly was our love and admiration for the music of Janáček. Among my Janáček favourites is his cycle for piano solo “On an Overgrown Path”, his two string quartets, the 1.X.1905  piano sonata and his Sinfonietta.
Zdeněk Nejedlý, a Czech musicologist and later a Minister of Culture during Czechoslovakia’s communist period, was highly critical of Janáček, regarding him as a composer who accumulated a lot of material but wasn’t able to do anything with it, calling his style “unanimated”. You do wonder sometimes what kind of ears some people have; certainly his were not the same as mine for sure nor were they the same as the many who consider Janáček as the greatest Czech composer of the twentieth century. I know very little music that speaks as achingly as some of the pieces within the “On an Overgrown Path” cycle. Therefore I was glad to have this opportunity to get to know his Sonata for Violin and Piano better for I always find that reviewing music forces me to listen more intently. It dates from 1914-15 and followed two previous attempts at writing one, both of which have been lost. How successful they were we’ll never know but since Janáček was as fierce a critic of his own work as anyone else could be the fact that this one survived to be published gives it a stamp of approval from its author. If people like Nejedlý couldn’t appreciate its value it was their loss.
In 1923 it was first performed in Frankfurt with no less a person than the composer Paul Hindemith playing the violin part. It is unmistakably Janáček with his characteristically bittersweet and heartfelt melodies and rather spare writing; neither a note too many nor a note too few. What could Nejedlý have been thinking of! Some say that the opening of the sonata is descriptive of the anxiety over the beginning of the First World War and you can certainly hear the expression of anxiety in the first movement. Janáček spent seven years revising the work which was only completed to his satisfaction in 1921. The second movement was the only one of the four to remain unchanged and is a lilting and gentle depiction of pastoral calm - a complete contrast to the restless nature of the opening movement with its uneasy dialogue between the two instruments. The third movement is dominated by a folklike theme that Janáček often employed. It’s a common trait amongst Czech composers and with such a rich vein of folk music to draw on who could blame them. The work closes with an Adagio with some beautiful passages for both instruments. Of the chorale-like theme the composer said it depicts “the Russian armies entering Hungary”.
Another criticism made of Janáček by Nejedlý was that his music did not conform to the style of Smetana. A strange thing to say; why should any composer’s music conform to the style of anyone else? The reason I imagine is that Smetana is thought of as the father of Czech music but why should a father’s “children” be expected to behave as their clones; sterility is the result if there is no development.
As it happens it is Smetana’s music that follows on from Janáček on the disc with what is sometimes described as the chamber equivalent of his most well known work Ma Vlast (My Country) a work that has always traditionally opened the Prague Spring Festival held each May. From the Homeland: Two Pieces for Violin and Piano is a charming and typical folk inspired work with dance themes that anyone who knows the area will recognise.
The rest of the disc that makes up more than half the total is of two works by Prokofiev - a complete contrast to the music of the two Czech nationalist composers. The first is his Sonata for Violin Solo, Op.115 written in 1947 with the idea that it could be performed by one or several violinists. It was inspired by his watching as 20 students at the Moscow Conservatory performed Bach’s Partita No.3 in perfect harmony. It is a sunny work full of joie de vivre with dancing rhythms throughout and Prokofiev’s characteristically wry humour permeating the proceedings. I imagine that it is quite tricky to ensure that all the contrasting speeds are maintained as per instructions. It is a measure of a violinist’s skill to produce a really convincing performance which this certainly is. The final movement in particular is played by špaček with huge bravura. The Sonata for Violin and Piano No.1 in F minor, Op.80 is, by contrast, very dark but no less thrilling in its own way with a beauty occasioned by its emotive power. Prokofiev ensures that the piano plays as powerfully muscular a role as does the violin and each is perfectly matched to produce a richly rewarding sound that is deeply satisfying.
I’ve said before how much I love Prokofiev precisely because he is not easy to anticipate where he’s going with a theme. He works to his own logic and not to one that can be predicted - at least, I should say, not by me. I have a particular love for the opening of the third movement which is absolutely gorgeous as well as wistful; it’s no wonder that, unlike what the adverts said about Heineken lager in the 1980s and 1990s, music really can refresh the parts that other (things) cannot reach! The final movement is not as dark as the first two movements but is rather playful. In its closing moments seems to be rushing headlong towards its exit only to put the brakes on to finish in a restrained manner of little more than a whisper.
It seems that špaček has played the Smetana and the Prokofiev sonata for violin and piano countless times, including for his successful participation in the International Queen Elizabeth Competition in Brussels (2012) where he was Laureate, and I must say it shows since he plays with great maturity. He is partnered by an extremely gifted pianist Miroslav Sekera and the two seem to have created a very effective duo and they are totally in touch with each other at all times. I found the disc enjoyable from start to finish.
Steve Arloff