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Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
The Diary of One Who Disappeared, JWV/12, [30:43]
Six Folksongs sung by Eva Gabel, JWV/9 [7:13]
Songs from Detva (Brigand Ballads), JWV/11 [14:33]
Pavol Breslik (tenor)
Ester Pavlu (mezzo-soprano: Diary), Dominika Hanko, Zuzana Marczelová, Mária Kovács, (three female voices: Diary)
Robert Pechanec (piano)
rec. 2019, 4tune Studio, Vienna
ORFEO C989201 [52:29]

Janáček’s The Diary of One Who Disappeared (completed in 1919) is a song cycle – though one with operatic elements and so sometimes staged – for tenor, mezzo, three distant female voices and piano. The cycle deals with a love which compels the lover to transcend social boundaries, so the tenor adopts the role of the farmer’s son who abandons his family and village community for the sake of Zefka, the Gypsy with whom he becomes obsessed. There is also more than a hint of miscegenation, with the Gypsy woman referred to as “dark-skinned”. Like several of his later works its passion draws upon Janáček’s own transgressive and obsessive (on his side) relationship with Kamila Stösslová, the married woman many years his junior with whom he was in love.

All this is reflected in a work of almost unrelenting intensity, its vocal style familiar from Janáček’s operas, the most famous of which were yet to be written. Breslik has fine credentials for the piece, not least his - to my monoglot judgement - convincing Czech (in fact he is a Slovak). Then of course there is his attractive basic timbre, a fresh-sounding tenor which easily conveys a sense of youth. Most important is his musicianship and commitment, so that he seems always engaged with the cycle’s drama, and with the role, since that is what we have here – a psycho-drama rather like a Winterreise with a quite different scenario and outcome.

Our besotted diarist needs to be on ringing form for these sometimes strenuous utterances, and Breslik conveys the sense of this young man’s internal struggle in his voice, while remaining musical, with good tone and line. The first four songs convey the tension of the situation, tempted to sin but longing to remain pure, and number six is ambivalent, its lyricism suggesting he does not mean what he says, when he wishes “if only she would turn to stone”. This is not an easy work to sing, and in the label’s promotional video Breslik bemoans the fact that the independence of the piano part, less supportive than in most art songs, means he has to locate some elusive pitches all on his own. He does so, and maintains a high vocal and dramatic standard right through to the two climactic high C’s in the final song. Janáček revised the score to moderate the demanding tessitura, and in some live performances one has wished the composer had stuck to the lower option for that ending, but not here.

Of course Breslik’s is not the only voice we hear. The Gypsy herself is also heard in songs 9, 10 and 11 and the splendid Ester Pavlu sounds wonderful from her first entry – who could resist such glamour, both of voice and seductive manner? The three female singers who form a sort of offstage chorus are also well blended, and Janáček’s intriguing effect comes off. They are not balanced nearly as distantly as he indicated – “almost inaudible” was his instruction, but I this closer balance works as evocatively in its own way, in part because of the intimacy of the singing, and the siren sound the trio conveys. (The Bostridge version – see below – has the trio much more distant, as indicated.) Pianist Robert Pechanec is an alert accompanist throughout, and efective in his solo intermezzo (No. 13) and the final coda. His rather soft-voiced piano is given a slightly recessed sound ‘behind’ the singer.

Janáček also set a number of folk songs and the two groups here make very attractive fillers, if at a much lower level of intensity than The Diary of One who Disappeared. In fact, the short measure for the CD makes one wish that a few more such items had been included. But the main drawback to the issue is the booklet. Although there are booklet notes in English, there is no English translation of any of these songs, just the original texts and a German translation. This seriously inhibits one’s involvement with the drama of the main item. I have not heard many other recordings of The Diary of One Who Disappeared, but for me the outstanding version from Ian Bostridge and Thomas Adčs (EMI, 2001) is generally still to be preferred, even to this fine newcomer.

Roy Westbrook

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