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Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
Sonata 1.X.1905 ‘From the Street’ (1905) [12:58]
On an Overgrown Path, Series 1 (1901-08) [29:31]
On an Overgrown Path, Series 2 (1911) [7:42]
In the Mists (1912) [13:59]
Thema con variazioni (1880) [9:11]
Reminiscence (1928) [1:26]
Jan Bartoš (piano)
rec. 2019, Martinů Hall, Academy of the Arts, Prague
SUPRAPHON SU4266-2 [75:36]

On an Overgrown Path, Series 1 (1901-08) [27:03]
In the Mists (1912) [14:42]
Sonata 1.X.1905 ‘From the Street’ (1905) [12:02]
On an Overgrown Path, Series 2 (1911) [6:07]
On an Overgrown Path, Series 2 Supplement [10:33]
Zoltán Fejérvári (piano)
rec. 2018, Westvest Church, Schiedam, The Netherlands

These collections of Janáček’s piano works represent two different approaches to what are, for the most part, miniature pieces. Before comparing them with each other, one must turn to what for me are benchmark recordings: those by Rudolf Firkušný, either his 1970s DG or the 1989 account for RCA Red Seal. With the advent of the CD my reference has been the later recording, but both offer authoritative performances. After all, Firkušný was Janáček’s pupil.

Of the works on these discs, the Sonata 1.X.1905 offers the greatest challenge to pianists, even if none of the works is overly virtuosic. The genesis of this sonata is well known to Janáček fans. A young protester who took part in a demonstration in October 1905 in support of a proposal to found a Czech-language university in Brno was bayonetted to death during the protest. Janáček witnessed this, which inspired him to compose a three-movement sonata. Before the premiere the composer destroyed the third movement and later threw the remainder of the work in the Vltava River. Luckily, the pianist had saved a copy of these movements and so the truncated sonata survived. Janáček agreed to the work’s publication in 1924. The sonata’s two surviving movements are subtitled, thus: “Presentiment” and “Death.” The first movement is very agitated and dramatic, while its successor is slow and redolent of grief.

What this piece, as well as the remaining piano works, requires of the pianist is not overstatement, but close attention to both dynamics and tempo. Firkušný played these works with simplicity, yet real feeling. He did not exaggerate anything, but gave everything its due. Jan Bartoš also possesses the right touch for this music, but employs more rubato than his forebear. His piano tone is beautifully pellucid, yet with plenty of warmth. Without reference to Firkušný, Bartoš is very convincing. Having been the last pupil of Ivan Moravec, according to the booklet notes, he makes a good alternative to Firkušný. I am certain to return to this recording of the sonata when I want to hear somebody other than Firkušný. Indeed, time seems to stand still for Bartoš in the second movement. Zoltán Fejérvári, on the other hand, does not fully convince me. I had not heard of the young Hungarian pianist before and am impressed with his pianistic abilities. I can see him as an excellent exponent of Bartók or Prokofiev, but find him rather too percussive even in this piece. He does not employ rubato to the extent of Bartoš, which is neither here or there, and his tempi are generally quicker and more aligned with Firkušný’s. However, his piano tone can become annoyingly bangy and he makes what seems to be an error or misreading of a crucial chord in the first ending of the second movement. What he plays is a B-flat major chord instead of a minor chord—a discord—with the lowest note being B-flat rather than B natural. This changes the whole character of the ending. Also, his repeated-note phrases are not always articulated consistently. These may seem like small matters, but when compared with the other pianists they tell.

The four-movement cycle In the Mists is the latest of his piano works, minus some extremely brief pieces Janáček left during the last year of his life. As with the other pieces, In the Mists, is representative of the composer’s early maturity. In other words, while these pieces do not contain the astounding originality of Janáček’s late masterpieces they sound like no other composer. In the Mists is for me the most successful of the composer’s solo piano works. The individual movements do not contain subtitles, unlike the Piano Sonata or the first series of the cycle On an Overgrown Path. Rather, there are only tempo indications such as andante, molto adagio, andantino, and presto. In the Mists has been labeled “impressionistic,” though there is disagreement on the appropriateness of this designation. Firkušný, for example, thinks it unlikely that Janáček was familiar with Debussy’s music and that he was only trying to find his own, original voice in this work. Musicologist and Janáček specialist Jiří Zahrádka, who interviews Bartoš at some length in his CD booklet, sees Debussy’s influence. He recounts that shortly before embarking on this cycle Janáček attended a concert in Brno where piano compositions by Debussy were played. According to Zahrádka, this exposure to Debussy was also “reflected in the character of his very dreamy, extraordinarily colourful composition.” It would seem that Bartoš also finds Debussy’s influence by characterizing the movements with a poetic touch and real affection that does not exclude power when required. Fejérvári, overall, is much plainer and can overdo dynamics at times. While his soft dynamics are fine, he gets too loud and harsh in the fortissimo passages. Bartoš’s runs in quiet passages are ravishing, reminding one of a string of pearls. As a whole, both pianists have the measure of this music. I just happen to prefer Bartoš here. Neither exaggerates the music to the extent that Ivana Gavrić did in her otherwise wonderful, mixed recital for Champs Hill Records (review).

On an Overgrown Path has a rather confusing history. This cycle of short pieces, in some way reminiscent of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces, was composed between 1901 and 1908 when Janáček was recovering from the death of his daughter, Olga. They originated in a request to be performed on the harmonium and initially there were at least seven of the pieces, the first five of which were published in 1901-02 under the title On an Overgrown Path. By 1908 they were listed as piano works and by 1911 he had added subtitles to each of the pieces and published ten in all, as Series 1. At the same time, Janáček was contemplating a second series. These did not contain subtitles and were published only in 1942 after the composer’s death. There were five such pieces in the second series, a few which were discards from the first series. The latest edition of Janáček’s works from Bärenreiter contains only two of these as regular numbers of Series 2, marked Andante and Allegretto, respectively. The last three are considered “Supplements,” or Paralipomena, the assumption being that they were not at as high an inspirational level as the others. Thus, Bartoš includes only the first two numbers of the second series, while Fejérvári includes all five as did Firkušný earlier. The older, Artia edition that Firkušný presumably used has all five pieces listed together as Series 2.

On an Overgrown Path contains some of the most intimate music Janáček ever composed, but its apparent simplicity does not mean that it is not a challenge for pianists. The challenge is not to over-interpret the pieces, but to take into consideration their subtitles, whether it be “Our Evenings,” A Blown-away Leaf,” or “They Chattered Like Swallows.” The last three in Series 1 are clearly associated with the death of Janáček’s daughter and titled, “Unutterable Anguish,” “In Tears,” and “The Barn Owl Has Not Flown Away.” According to David Moncur, in his insightful note to Fejérvári’s recording, the “enigmatic title of the final piece originates in the belief that the call of the little owl heard near the house of a sick person foretells death.” Again Firkušný is nonpareil in these pieces by observing the composer’s meticulous directions as to tempo and dynamics. Bartoš is irresistible in the ardour and almost seductiveness of his account, but he does not always heed Janáček’s dynamics to the degree that Firkušný does and treats piano markings rather cavalierly—at times playing too loudly. The more plain-spoken Fejérvári is also not immune to overstating dynamics at times and the percussiveness of his sound at higher levels is at odds with this music. Still, there is much to enjoy in both pianist’s accounts.

Bartoš completes his programme with one of Janáček’s earliest pieces, the 1880 Thema con variazioni, which the composer dedicated to his fiancée, Zdenka Schulzová and which became known as “Zdenka’s Variations.” This work is not in the least characteristic of Janáček and was written as an academic exercise for his teacher. The composer regarded it as his “opus 1.” The other work on the CD is one of Janáček’s very last compositions, the brief Reminiscence that he wrote for the journal Muzika. According to Zahrádka, in its few bars the piece “represents, in a sense, the essence of Janáček’s musical language.” Firkušný included the work in his later recording and Zdenka’s Variations in his earlier one. While I still give pride of place to my Firkušný recordings for all of this music, I have learned much and gained considerable enjoyment from the two new exponents of Janáček’s piano works, especially Jan Bartoš, and with the reservations noted, Zoltán Fejérvári.

Leslie Wright

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