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Karel JANOVICKÝ (b.1930)
Festive Fantasia and Fugue for recorder and piano (2013) [5:02]
Rain Songs for Soprano, Treble Recorder and Piano, (2010) [9:01]
Sonata for treble recorder and piano (2013) [12:52]
Passages of Flight: a cycle of five songs for high voice and piano (1995) [11:08]
Sonata for piano (2005) [11:48]
Quintet for recorder and strings (2010) [13:48]
John Turner (recorder)
Lesley-Jane Rogers (soprano)
Joan Taylor (piano)
The Manchester Camerata Ensemble.
rec. 2014/16, ASC Recording, Macclesfield, Cheshire; St Thomas Church, Stockport, UK
Texts of vocal works included

What do we know about the Czech composer, journalist and pianist Karol Janovický? Bohus Frantisek Simsa (real name) is one of many émigré composers who arrived in the United Kingdom in the aftermath of European Totalitarianism. Born in the Bohemian town of Pilsen on 18 February 1930, he travelled to Germany in 1949 and then to London where he studied at the Royal College of Music. He worked for the BBC for many years as a producer in the gramophone department and later at the BBC World Service where he directed the Czechoslovak Service. He has been a great champion of Anton Dvořák and has participated in Dvořák Society activities for many years.

Karol Janovický has a huge catalogue, with an especial focus on chamber and instrumental music. However, there are many orchestral works, songs and an opera. His music is modern-ish sounding, but from what I have heard on this CD is certainly not avant-garde. If I were to give a clue to listening, I guess I would say his music lies somewhere between Béla Bartók, Leoš Janáček and Mátyás Seiber, with a little Antonín Dvořák thrown in for good measure. Occasionally, in these works I heard echoes of Vaughan Williams and Benjamin Britten, but that may have been my imagination. All this is only a hint: he is very much his own man.

The CD opens with the vibrant Festive Fantasia and Fugue for recorder and piano. It was written as a 70th birthday gift to the present recorderist John Turner. From the opening bars of this work, and the exotic sounds produced by the wind instrument, one just knows that this is will be an enjoyable work. The liner notes are correct: there is a ‘cheeky’ squaring up to each other for fun rather than for fight. The fugue is based on Verdi’s aria from Falstaff (my favourite Shakespearean character) ‘Tutto nel mondo é burla. L'uom é nato burlone’, - The whole world is a joke, man is born a jester. It is good to hear music that lacks angst and is quite simply fun.

The eponymous Rain Songs are settings of poems by the Hungarian-born poet and translator George Szirtes (b.1948). These were written in 2010 in memory of the composer Mátyás Seiber. Seiber came to London in the1930s as a refugee: he is noted for his eclectic musical style, working with folk music, serialism and jazz. He died in 1960. As the title implies, the poems evoke water and rain, although there are also references to historical issues, such as the trenches of the First World War with gas and mud. The imagery in these poems is impressive (as would be expected from Szirtes). One of my favourite lines is ‘The whistling of small birds among wet leaves/A scroll of gull, an even stream cloud…’. Karel Janovický has set these poems with imagination and dexterity. The song-cycle is a carefully made synthesis of voice, recorder and piano. Often the ‘pitter patter’ of the rain can be heard in musical onomatopoeia. The aesthetic of these songs is timeless: it would be unfair to say that they ‘sound like’ any other composer. They are contemporary, yes, but always approachable and often quite beautiful.

The other song-cycle on this CD is Passages of Flight for soprano and piano, dating from 1995. The five poems set were chosen by their author, Richard Robbins, who is a friend of Karel Janovický. There is a strange beauty about these ageless settings that reflect the bitter-sweet subject matter of Robbins’ poems.

The Sonata for recorder (2013) followed on from the Festive Fantasia and Fugue. Janovický was so impressed by John Turner’s performance of this work that he immediately began on the Sonata. It is written in three movements, with the finale being an excuse for a musical thriller. Once again, the recorderist is encouraged to produce some bizarre effects on their instrument. There are some serious moments here, but the mood is typically positive. A lovely romantic second subject features in the opening movement, which contrasts with the ‘Jack-in-the-Box’ main theme. The slow movement is dreamy in mood and suggests a lazy, warm summer’s day.

My personal favourite track is the Piano Sonata, dating from around 2005. Like most of the other instrumental pieces on this CD it is an agreeable work that is not emotionally demanding. There are moments of depth here, but the overall impression is one of fun and ‘joie de vivre.’ The first movement uses sonata form to tell a story (plot unknown) which is well-balanced between love and intrigue. The slow movement is reflective but not in any way sad or gloomy. The Sonata ends with a ‘playful’ romp framed as a ‘rondo.’ The style of pianism is quite old-fashioned in its sound and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that: it could have been written at almost any time over the past 100 years. I felt that there was a touch of Les Six in places. It is inspiringly played by Joan Taylor.

I liked the Quintet for recorder and string quintet. The work was first heard in Cambridge at a memorial concert (2010) for Mátyás Seiber. Once again, it is dedicated to John Turner. This is a considerable piece, lasting for nearly 14 minutes. There are three movements, which are full of invention and interest, including much rhythmic vitality, especially in the final movement. The recorder is always to the fore and has a technically challenging part. The ‘mood swings’ are considerable: from idyllic to intense by way of a touch of romance. Written in an amicable, but sometimes wayward, modern style this work is faultless in it effect.

Bearing in mind that this CD consists largely of premiere recordings from a relatively unknown composer, I would have liked more detailed liner notes. I understand that a listener and a reviewer can ‘critique’ a piece of music with little or no background, but it would have been helpful to have just a little bit more information. For example, I had to refer to the composer’s webpage to find out when some of these pieces were composed. The text of both song-cycles is given. There are no biographical details of the performers, although once again this can be explored on the Internet. The composer’s biography is also a bit skimpy, although there is a link in Janovický’s webpage to an essay by Dr David C.F. Wright, which for reasons well-known to readers of MusicWeb International, cannot be quoted (even if one wanted to). The cover design by Clarissa Upchurch is suitably ‘rainy’ in its effect. I would have expected a slightly better-quality insert: on my copy the printing on the middle pages is a wee bit ‘squiffy’, with the last line of the text of the poem ‘Flight’ nearly cut off.

The sound quality is ideal on the entire CD. From the initial impact of hearing this works for the very first time (I did listen to this CD twice through) exhibits sympathetic playing. As always, Lesley-Jane Rogers’ singing is a sheer pleasure. Her voice is ideally suited to these two sets of songs. John Turner’s performances are excellent. His impact is felt in every bar of this CD: he seems to act as an unheard MC in those works he is not involved in. Naturally, the Manchester Camerata Ensemble are in tip-top condition. I have already recognised the splendid rendition of the Piano Sonata by Joan Taylor.

I noted that there are many works in Karel Janovický’s catalogue. It may be a bit ambitious to hope for a recording of the symphonies and sinfoniettas, however, there is vast amount of chamber music for a wide variety of instrumental forces, many piano works and dozens of songs (several in the Czech language) that demand to be explored.

John France



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