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Whispering Leaves
Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)

Pohádka (Fairy Tale) (1910 rev 1923) [12:51]
On an Overgrown Path: A Blown-away leaf, trans Miloš Sádlo [3:33]
Josef PÁLENÍČEK (1914-1991)
Chorale Variations on the theme ‘O Sacred Head, Now Wounded’ (1942) [18:06]
Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
Cello Sonata No.2 H286 (1941) [23.27]
Lucie Štěpánová (cello)
Ksenia Kouzmenko (piano)
rec. 2017, Westvest 90, Schiedam, Netherlands
COBRA 0069 [58:14]

There’s some good programming here. Martinů’s Second Quartet was composed in 1941, the year before pianist and composer Josef Páleníček wrote his Chorale Variations on the theme ‘O Sacred Head, Now Wounded’. And Pohádka introduces Janáček whose A Blown-Away Leaf, from On an Overgrown Path, is heard in the arrangement by the great cellist Miloš Sádlo. The correspondences and associations go even deeper, as Sádlo and Páleníček were long-standing members of the group that came to be known as the Czech Trio but had been born the Smetana Trio.

Czech cellist Lucie Štěpánová and Ksenia Kouzmenko, who was born in Minsk in Belarus, take an unusually languid approach to the Martinů sonata. The result is that the work never really generates much of the nervous rhythmic tension essential to a truly successful performance. the performance preferring to locate a more expressive, romantic element. It means that the slow movement takes on an unusually introspective cast, which is not necessarily unconvincing, but the finale almost wholly hangs fire. Chuchro and Hála take an altogether more athletic approach and others are even more motoric; Isserlis and Mustonen, for example, drive through it in 18 minutes, whereas the Cobra pairing labour over 23 and a half.

There’s far less competition in the Páleníček and I’ve not heard a rival recording. It’s a noble work with a sacred theme followed by nine variations. There’s necessary gravity here, though the music lightens for deft treble coloration in the piano, some virtuoso flourishes for the cello in the third variation, and some meditative, melancholy and yet songful writing in the fifth. There’s a cello cadenza and the infusion of Moravian folk rhythms in the finale where Páleníček seems to evoke Martinů before returning to the theme, O Sacred Head, Now Wounded, for a close that has truly refulgent lyricism and is suffused with a beauty that seems to hold out hope for the future.

Pohádka is thoughtfully voiced but, rather like the Martinů, somewhat introverted and off the pace. It’s not simply a question of tempo – though it is slow – so much as a lack of impulse once again. The arrangement of A Blown-Away Leaf offers a warm and thoughtful envoi to a well-recorded and annotated programme that offers interesting links and cross-currents.

Jonathan Woolf


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