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Leoš JANÁČEK (1854–1928)
On An Overgrown Path (1900-1911) [39:13]
From the Street 1.X.1905 ‘Piano Sonata’ (1905-1906) [13:12]
In the Mists (1912-1913) [14:15]
Thomas Adès (piano)
rec. 2018, Henry Wood Hall, London

I do wish I could understand precisely why I find these three extraordinary sequences so fascinating, frustrating, rewarding and compelling. It’s as if you are certain there’s something really important going on – and simply seeking the key is quite as satisfying and addictive as the most perfectly written and elegantly conceived whodunnit, or even the strange sounds and shapes of this old new music itself. By “old new” I don’t mean Janáček’s style; I’m referring to the idea that no matter how often has heard this music, how severely one concentrates. how much one roots for Janáček and yearns to GET the music, every time one hears it, it seems to sound so different, and one must start again from scratch, and one does so willingly. And there’s an abruptness; a cursory, mercurial spontaneity to this music which is akin to conversational language (or internal monologue) - whether Janacek is straining for accuracy in reflecting the half-remembered eavesdroppings or moments of On an Overgrown Path, or translating his experience in the often deadpan gloom of From the Street, or shaping the impenetrable profundities of In the Mists. And thus on each successive occasion the strange music is sufficient on its own terms to carry one, although in the past Janáček’s many interpreters have seemed to be rather ‘generic’ in their respective approaches – with the probable exception of the earliest and likely most reliable messenger, Rudolf Firkusny.
In ‘Full of Noises’ (Faber and Faber 2012) Thomas Adès discussed his career-long fascination with Janáček with the writer and broadcaster Tom Service and compared his admiration for the Czech composer with his antipathy towards Wagner: “When I talk about Wagner’s ‘fungal’ quality, by the way, I’m talking about something quite technical: his music isn’t a tree, it’s a fungus….. Janáček’s music is organic – a flower that blooms, because the sap of the feeling in the music is there from the very beginning and that’s what drives it, rather than some creepy philosophical agenda. Janáček’s response to what is happening in the drama is so direct in the music: there’s nothing but response and music in it. There’s nothing external. You don’t have to wait in Janáček for things to happen, as you do in Wagner, while he does something seductive for half an hour”

It seems to me that pithy characterisation acts both as a rationale for and a description of this disc. During the seven years that elapsed between those words and this recording, Adès’ ideas seem to have crystallised and he has now realised them in the remarkable performances on this superbly engineered disc. In his (too few) recordings as a solo pianist or accompanist (for example ‘Piano’ in 2000 - review, ‘Lieux retrouvés’ with Steven Isserlis for Hyperion in 2012 - review and most obviously in the feted account of The Diary of One who Disappeared with Ian Bostridge - review) Janáček usually makes at least a cameo appearance – I admit to being thrilled that Adès’ enthusiasm is so obviously authentic and has proven so resilient.

I suspect many listeners would share my view that the reference recording of these three masterpieces for many decades has been the earlier of the two made by Firkusny (currently available on DG Originals 449 764-2); these elusive pieces were inevitably in his blood given that he studied with the composer from the age of 5. I came to those readings rather late yet it was only on being drawn to persevere with them that I began to ‘feel’ music I’d previously found impenetrable in others’ hands. Whilst I would never want to be without Firkusny, Adès certainly seems to find something else in this music – or does he? To refer to his words again, he somehow seems uniquely able to distil the pure essence of Janáček’s weird inspiration exclusively from the ‘sap’ that hides within and between the notes. There is no superfluous manipulation, and no unwarranted emphasis; it seems to me that these interpretations are primarily driven by Adès’ own proven compositional instincts – by a professional need to get into Janáček’s head and his way of working. It so happens that Adès is a remarkable pianist as well. Add to that a superb instrument and truthful recorded sound (the dynamic range achieved by Mike Hatch and Tim Oldham for a piano disc is extraordinary) and Janáček almost literally comes to three-dimensional life, warts and all. I cannot think of a single composer born prior to 1854 whose music could ever sound this, well, cutting-edge!

The programme embraces all three major solo piano masterpieces. In Book 1 of On An Overgrown Path Adès certainly doesn’t hang about, at least in relation to Firkusny who clothes each vignette in an admittedly appealing sepia gauze. In his brief booklet note, whilst Adès points up the role of memory in each of these works he lets the composer do the talking and conveys the acerbity and angularity of the music in generally swift readings marked by clear dynamic contrasts, and a nuanced way with the notes that ensures the faithful conveyance of the music’s inner parts. Janáček’s insistent repetitions, the restlessness and brittleness of each piece emerge cleanly and disturbingly. The exception is the fourth piece, The Madonna of Frydek, which Adès’ translates as a lingering processional whereby the listener has the time to take in the details. The last piece, the ominous The Barn Owl has not Flown Away seems freshly minted – where the descending two-note call is blatant in Firkusny’s account it’s more concealed with Adès – as if one is walking in the woods and the listener needs to seriously focus to hear it. The timbre of the piano is magnificently harnessed by both pianist and production team to reveal a palette of vibrant colours rather than the sepias and greys one is more used to hearing in this cycle. The same applies in Book 2 – for some reason Adès omits the fourth Vivo torso. His detailed, forensic approach amplifies the modernity of the first pair of pieces which in turn appears to magnify the obvious influences behind numbers 3 and 5 (Schumann and Liszt respectively). Adès’ tiering of dynamics throughout is masterly. The last piece almost swings. The whole sequence emerges as original and fresh in these invigorating, humane readings.

If the domestic and personal experiences that are characterised or hinted at in On an Overgrown Path have inevitably been distorted and reconfigured in Janáček’s memory by the passage of time, the events that triggered the two movements of From the Street 1.X.1905 were still echoing in his mind when he began work on the piece, not least because he himself had been an active participant in the popular protest to support the establishment of a Czech language university in Brno. This quickly deteriorated into violence and resulted in the brutal death of a young apprentice. In Volume 1 of his monumental biography of the composer John Tyrrell speculates on the common (and incorrect) labelling of the resultant work as a ‘sonata’ and recounts Janáček’s vehement dislike of a third movement funeral march which he immediately withdrew at the work’s final rehearsal. The two segments that remain seem to constitute subjective reflection as opposed to literal reportage. Adès seems anxious to allow every note, silence and gesture to emerge with real bite and definition, and has the technique required to achieve these ends without undue effort. What emerges is a natural, inevitable outpouring, again realised in vital, truthful sound. The lingering silences Adès applies to the second panel, ‘Death’ ensure its impact is shattering. This is outstanding pianism.

A highlighted quotation in the leaflet summarises Adès’ view of Janáček’s piano masterpiece In the Mists: The greatness of In the Mists lies in its very claustrophobia, and austerity of means affecting every aspect of the music. The solo piano becomes a narrow space with four solid walls”. It’s a compelling metaphor; a careful verbal conception of an enigmatic sequence which actually seems at odds with the teeming inner life Adès finds in the score. But the austerity is palpable too; it’s there from the off in the unassuming rising phrase that launches the Andante, the first of four fastidiously crafted jewels, each denuded of anything remotely extraneous in this pianist’s hands. Thus In the Mists materialises in a kind of controlled spontaneity.

In summary, Adès uncovers ample beauty and truth in the dots, dashes, rests and instructions of Janáček’s scores themselves, his playing is alive and decisive and he is superbly recorded. This is an unmissable disc for any listener who holds this composer dear; a complement rather than replacement for the familiar Firkusny accounts. Thomas Adès the performer seems to offer freshly revealing insights into this fascinating, somewhat inscrutable repertoire simply by conscientiously attending to the notes themselves.

Richard Hanlon

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