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Fenętre sur le jardin Josef SUK (1874-1935)
Love Song, Op. 7 No. 1 (1891) [6:33] Jaroslav KVAPIL (1892-1958)
Through the Valley of Grief and Sorrow (1922) [14:51] Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
Fenętre sur le jardin (1938) [7:48] Miloslav KABELÁČ (1908-1979)
Short Piano Pieces (1946-61) [17:46] Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
In the Mists (1912) [14:56]
Ksenia Kouzmenko (piano)
rec. 2018, Westvest 90, Schiedam, Netherlands COBRA 0070 [61:43]
This enterprising disc charts a pathway through Czech piano music of the twentieth-century (give or take) in performances of clear high points, such as Janáček’s In the Mists, but also through premiere recordings of cycles by Jaroslav Kvapil and Miloslav Kabeláč.
Ksenia Kouzmenko, Belarus-born, recorded the album Whispering Leaves for Cobra with cellist Lucie Štěpánová not so long ago, a disc I enjoyed, not least for the recording of Josef Páleníček’s Chorale Variations on the theme ‘O Sacred Head, Now Wounded’. Like this latest album it too included music by Janáček and Martinů.
The ‘give or take’ in my first paragraph referred to Suk’s 1891 Love Song, his Greatest Hit, at least for some people, notably pianists. The bar has been set high for this, first on shellac by Jan Heřman and then much more recently by Ivan Moravec. But Kouzmenko proves an ardent interpreter, full-toned and passionate, and very well worth hearing. This proves an entrée to Kvapil’s mournfully-titled Through the Valley of Grief and Sorrow, composed in 1922. Kvapil was one of Janáček’s students in Brno until the age of 18, next going to study in Leipzig with Reger. A fine pianist and conductor, he did much to promote the music of his old Czech teacher, premičring both the Violin Sonata and the Glagolitic Mass. The nine movements of his piano cycle are character studies and most are studded with quietly absorbing melancholy, full of chimes and bell tolls in the bass, and hints of Francophile limpidity and sublimated expressive candour. Despite the cycle’s title it ends joyfully; the valley has been successfully traversed and care banished.
Kabeláč’s seven Short Piano Pieces were composed over a fifteen-year period. He is typically austere with his resources, and the tenor of the music is elusive, though sometimes harmonically vivid. He plays on alternations of major and minor and he too manages to infiltrate hints of tolling unease. His sense of melancholy is less overt than Kvapil’s but the times in which he lived were much more trying and called for a more ambiguous but still personal response. The motif of the fifth piece is a cryptogram of his wife’s name, Berta Rixová, who was Jewish and whom, despite pressure, he refused to divorce during the occupation. The sixth piece seems to evoke, in its percussive intensity, music of the Far East. Gripping, even in its adamantine moments, this is music of precision and incorruptible honesty. Note that Ivo Kahánek has recorded his Eight preludes.
Martinů’s cycle Windows on to the Garden (Fenętre sur le jardin) shouldn’t be confused with Spring in the Garden, another piano cycle. Windows was composed in 1938 and is in four brief movements. Because she is faster, she doesn’t generate the contrasts that Radoslav Kvapil does in his recording made back in 1991; he is a more mellow customer in tempo and tone. It’s swings and roundabouts, though, as she is more incisive, whilst he is more descriptive. The dance panel in the third pierce is actually crisper in Kvapil’s recording but they’re about even-stevens when it comes to the humour; maybe Kvapil just edges it.
Which leaves In the Mists, where her tempi are much more reminiscent of Firkušný than Kvapil. Again, she plays well and evokes the temperaments and felicities of each movement but can’t match – as hardly anyone truly can – Firkušný’s sense of characterisation and colour.
The recording is generally fine – just a touch of hardness occasionally. The booklet is colourful and interesting to read but I’m not sure whether the empty white panels in the colour photographs (they’re topographical photographs) should contain small photographs or are intended to be blank, and thus representative of Art. The two-page colour spread of the countryside around Polička, where Martinů was born, looks rather odd with five empty white squares on the right-hand side.
Still, you’re not buying this disc for its pictures, you’d be buying it for valuable premičre recordings of excellent music, and well-shaped and lively performances of Czech classics.