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Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
The Diary of One Who Disappeared (1917-1920) [34:41]
Říkadla (original 1925 version for 1-3 voices, clarinet and piano) [7:37]
Moravian Folk Poetry In Songs -excerpts (1890) [20:02]
Nicky Spence (tenor), Václava Housková (mezzo-soprano)
Victoria Samek (clarinet)
Voice ensemble
Julius Drake (piano)
rec. 2018, All Saints’ Church, East Finchley, London
Reviewed as a Studio Master download from Hyperion Records
HYPERION CDA68282 [62:21]

Like my colleagues, and pretty much everybody else who has expressed an opinion, I thought this a marvellous disc.

It has taken me a while to get to love Nicky Spence’s voice, but he suits this music perfectly. The Diary of One Who Disappeared has become one of his musical calling cards, and he has captured the tone of this highly unusual cycle very well indeed. There is ardency and passion in his voice, inhabiting the urges of the lovestruck peasant boy without any hint of the country bumpkin that sometimes invades this cycle with less sensitive interpreters. There is mystery, and even a sense of awe, that seeps into the voice as he contemplates his passion for the gypsy girl – and his subsequent loss of innocence – and in the second half of the cycle this is replaced by a tone that combines devil-may-care insouciance with a growing sense of dread at what has happened to him. The climax at the revelation of his son is both musical and dramatic, and he shows himself to be a vocal actor of the highest calibre. The balance provided by the chocolaty mezzo of Václava Housková is both musically and dramatically powerful, and the recording is excellent throughout, the all-important trio of female voices drifting in, almost imperceptibly, from far off in the offstage picture.

It hardly needs saying the Julius Drake is the ideal accompanist, inhabiting all of the drama and emotional power of the piece with the finest aplomb. He comes into his own in Říkadla too, but here the presence of Victoria Samek makes a marvellous addition. Her chirruping clarinet pirouettes around the piano line in a way that lends an extraordinary sense of both colour and energy to the picture, and that’s entirely in keeping with the singing of the trio and the sentiment of the songs. Janáček’s use of those voices made me think of Britten at times, the way they manage to sound simultaneously innocent and ethereal, yet the distance of the recording also gives them a slight chilling effect, not unlike the boys in the War Requiem. And after all, these nursery rhymes are far from purely innocent: there is something more than slightly sinister about “I’m giving a little talk” (track 26) with its cast of animals and its rather suspect list of family ties.

That combination of the lovable and the strange also filters into the Moravian Folk Poetry settings. The pairing of Spence and Housková works every bit as well here, both for balance and for contrast in the dialogue songs, and there are real beauties on offer. “Memories” (track 36) is full of both yearning and unfulfillable longing, and “Slander” (track 38) makes powerful use of repetition, combining it with Drake’s deeply haunting piano line.

In short, this disc is a winner, and Hyperion’s Studio Master Download sounds fantastic. Beautifully programmed and recorded, it’s a great tour through Janáček’s songs and, if you’re new to them, a perfect introduction.

Simon Thompson

Previous review: Stuart Sillitoe ~ Richard Hanlon

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