Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
Pohádka (A Tale) [11.56]
Piano Sonata 1.X.1905 "From the Street" [14.44]
John FRANDSEN (b.1956)
Kaleidoscope - Sonata for cello and prepared piano [20.11]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Cello Sonata No.1 in E minor Op.38 [25.41]
Adam Stadnicki (cello), Galya Kolarova (piano)
rec. St Bartholomew's Church, Brighton, UK, 2017
Stereo 24/192 (as reviewed) and 24/96
Also available as stereo CD
CLAUDIO BD-A CR6041-6 [59:00]
The most significant thing about this disc is the new work by the prolific Danish composer John Frandsen, his Kaleidoscope - Sonata for cello and prepared piano. The title is derived from the optical toy and suggests that his work contains ever changing patterns. The words 'prepared piano' sparked memories of Henry Cowell and John Cage, who required objects (cutlery sometimes) to be placed against the strings, or cardboard or cloth to be rested on a range of strings, and for the strings to be played directly by the pianist by-passing the keyboard. Since no information is in the liner notes or on Frandsen's own website I asked for more about his 'prepared piano', the main reason being that even careful listening only gave hints of abnormal sounds from Galya Kolarova's Steinway D. With her acting as intermediary I received a rapid and very informative response from the composer. Apparently a piece of rubber is placed between the strings of the lowest G. This, says Frandsen "creates throughout the entire piece a damped percussive effect every time this note is hit - like dark sounds of door-knocking (perhaps from a demon?)". He goes on to note that, "In the vivace section (from bar 218) a piece of parchment is placed on the strings of the middle section of the piano. This creates a crisp and fragile sound equivalent to the cello’s sul ponticello estremo in the same passage. Both instruments struggle to make the music sound. The cello part says 'Ghost Vivaldi', so the idea is to create that kind of musical atmosphere in both instruments." And finally, "In the tranquillo sections (bar 131 and at the end) the pianist keeps the pedal down all the time. The sound becomes extremely resonant, and the notes are not played on the keyboard, instead the pianist plucks the strings inside the piano (pizzicato). The idea is here to create a spatial and ‘timeless’ mood - in combination with the cello’s harmonics." So, back to my initial comment about hearing only hints of strange sounds. Thanks to the absence of cutlery in particular, John Frandsen made only the subtlest of 'preparations' to the piano and in the context of an already very delicate tracery of sounds, particularly from the cellist, these pianistic effects could very easily pass unnoticed. The damped low G is noticeable once one knows to listen for it and the pizzicato piano strings make the faintest contribution towards the centre of the piece. But Kaleidoscope is not just about sound effects, it is a genuinely attractive work continually giving new patterns to the attentive listener. This is "modern" music no doubt, but it is never cacophonous and it does not outstay its welcome in its twenty minute duration. Colin Attwell's recording is a model of clarity, which is especially valuable in a work full of tiny sonic details.
Though the Frandsen is the best reason for purchasing this BDA, or its CD equivalent, the other two works make up by far the larger part of the issue. Janáček's well known early cello piece Pohádka is in three short movements. Originally Janáček planned to call his work The Story of Czar Berendey, of his son the Czarevich Ivan, of the intrigues of Kashchey the Immortal and the wisdom of the Princess Marya, Kashchey's daughter. Perhaps wisely, since the work would have been very much longer, he opted to illustrate just a handful of episodes from this tale, but alert readers will have noticed that this has much in common with the story chosen by Stravinsky for his great early ballet The Firebird, though Stravinsky was dealing with a hybrid of more than one fairy story. Janáček's first movement Con moto - Andante can be seen as a musical portrayal of Ivan and his bride and uses melodic material akin to parts of his earlier opera Jenůfa. The remaining two movements maintain this dialogue structure, says Jaroslav Vogel (in his substantial biography of the composer), in which it seems that the cello is Ivan and the piano his princess. The piece is certainly endlessly beautiful and in typical Janáček style it always sounds like a conversation. The present soloists are fully up to the task and their performance is very enjoyable.
Galya Kolarova gets a chance to strut her stuff alone in Janáček's Piano Sonata, the one with the curious name Sonata 1.X.1905 "From the Street". Just as in Pohádka the composer has descriptive aims. The work was inspired by violent events on 1st October 1905 leading to the bayoneting and subsequent death of a protesting worker on the streets of Brno. Janáček wrote the three movement piece in a state of agitation after these events, but by the time a performance was scheduled he had strong second-thoughts and at the premiere grabbed the work from the music stand before the final movement could be performed. He threw the manuscript in the river. It is only thanks to the performer at that premiere that two movements, which she had copied, survived. Janáček later relented and allowed performances of these appropriately named Presentiment and Death movements. Though not very pianistic, this is still very recognisably his music and well worth the occasional outing.
The Brahms Sonata is much more mainstream and the competition from the stars of the cello firmament is substantial. Whilst there is no doubting the skill and musicianship on display the work sounds comparatively underpowered. I made the, possibly mistaken, decision to listen to one of Jacqueline Du Pré's recordings and compared to her passionate outpouring Stadnicki just sounds too restrained. Galya Kolarova seems more willing to let go in the Brahms and there are times when the cello comes close to being submerged. Knowing how carefully the engineering balances are always made in Claudio productions I feel confident that this reflects the reality of the performance. The note does point out that Brahms intends the players to be equal partners but, up against Du Pré and Barenboim, this is very musical and often beautiful, but lacks passion.