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Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
Sonata 1.X.1905 ‘From the Street’ (1905) [12:17]
In the Mists (1912) [14:51]
On an Overgrown Path, Book 1 (1901-1908) [27:05]
On an Overgrown Path, Book 2 (1911) [16:41]
Lars Vogt (piano)
rec. 3 May 2016 (In the Mists) and 25-27 November 2019, Deutschlandfunk Kammermusiksaal, Cologne, Germany
ONDINE ODE1382-2 [75:36]

Leoš Janáček’s most significant piano music is handily of a duration that fits onto a single CD, so this superbly produced recording enters a quite competitive field. The booklet for this release has Lars Vogt ‘in conversation’ with Friederike Westerhuis, and Vogt’s comments on the music give us plenty of cause for enthusiasm when it comes to these performances. He is sensitive to “a certain fire, a certain element of danger” in the music, and has clearly thought much about the inner meaning behind these pieces, and the demands of bringing such elements to the fore.

Composed as a tribute that marks the moment that “ordinary labourer František Pavlík falls, stained with blood. He came merely to champion higher learning and has been slain by cruel murderers”, the Sonata is as austere and emotive here as I can recall hearing it anywhere. Vogt doesn’t hide from extremes, bringing out the mournful atmosphere of the first movement, Foreboding, with its sharp contrasts of lyricism and dramatic interjections. Janáček’s sadness and anger needs to be felt throughout this piece, and this is certainly the case here, each halting repetition in the second movement like a choking, painful sob.

In the Mists also has an emotional background, its expressions of loneliness arguably connected with the loss of Janáček’s daughter Olga some years previously. In any case, this was the last major piano work that he composed, and the “fundamental melancholy” in the music draws on dramatic rhetoric, but also on contrasting this with impressionist colour and visions of childlike innocence. All of this is movingly played here, Lars Vogt treading that fine line between a sincere and heartfelt symbiosis with Janáček’s unique soundworld while avoidingany kind of schmaltz or sentimentality.

On an Overgrown Path is a cycle of thirteen pieces divided into two volumes that evolved over a ten-year period, the original pieces intended for harmonium but scored for piano by the time the set was completed. With poetic titles, the music again ranges in extremes from Unutterable Anguish to the eloquent melodic simplicity of The Madonna of Frydek. Vogt is willing to take risks here, remaining faithful to the score, but using the pedal or indeed its absence to emphasise and heighten Janáček’s unique language - not to make his quirkiness mannered, but to somehow give added clarity of thought to the messages behind the notes.

As previously mentioned, there are numerous recordings with a similar or identical programme to this one, and one of the classic versions is that with Rudolf Firkušný (review). Firkušný is at times almost orchestral in his sonorities, and while all of those affecting silences are all present his touch is in general more legato than that of Vogt. Vogt is by no means skeletal in his playing, but you hear the difference in touch with something like In Tears, where Firkušný’s sound is more sustained and richer in general. Which you prefer will be up to you, as both are in the top notch when it comes to this repertoire. A few other recordings I have encountered, such as Hélčne Couvert (review) and Andrea Pestalozza (review) are far less convincing. If you want a really complete Janáček piano works experience then you could do worse than to acquire Jan Jiraský and friends (review) on the Arcodiva label, though this now appears to be download only.

Dominy Clements

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