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Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
Sonata 1.X.1905 ‘From the Street’ (1905) [13:01]
On an Overgrown Path, Set 1 (1901-08) [29:09]
In the Mists (1912) [16:07]
Sanna Vaarni (piano)
rec. July 2018, Järvenpää-Talo, Finland.
EMA VINCI RECORDS 70164 [58:04]

This combination of works has become quite popular on disc. Thomas Adčs, for one, on Signum, has made his mark with this trio of pieces, but so vivid is the music that there will always be demand for new recordings.

Sanna Vaarni studied at the Sibelius Academy and won a raft of competitions. She is currently Head of Piano Department at the Espoo Music Institute, the leading music school in Finland, whilst also pursuing her career as a soloist. This is her first commercial recording.

Older Czech pianists, such as Firkušný and Josef Páleníček, tended to take the Sonata at a fast tempo, heightening its moments of jagged intensity though more recent players – Jan Bartoš and Jan Jiraský – tend to be somewhat more expansive, as is the case with Vaarni too. Both phrasally and rhythmically she is a sensitive performer, and the dynamics and rests, in the second of the two movements, Death, are alike well judged. She gets the syntax and colour admirably.

She establishes her own sense of proportion and narrative in In the Mists. A fine technician, she is clearly sympathetic both to the Moravian idiom and also to the descriptive nature of the writing. That said, she isn’t alone in sounding somewhat less crisp than is ideal in the slow movement where Firkušný, almost uniquely on disc, shapes the music, its crests and falls, with such unerring perception. It’s quite difficult to assimilate the various successive tempo indications in the final Presto movement but she makes her own case for a slower than usual approach, albeit I happen to think there’s a touch too much rubato in the Andante panel before the tempo primo is re-established.

The longest work is On an Overgrown Path, Set 1, about which she clearly also has her own decided views. Each of the ten pieces is full of rich characterisation and it falls to the performer to extract each nuance, and to pay heed to the titles of the pieces, each explicitly descriptive. Though she doesn’t play off contrasts as overtly as some, Vaarni is a sympathetic interpreter, her chording being rich in the fourth panel devoted to The Madonna of Frydek though she might be thought to underplay opportunities for crisp articulation and rather to skate over the penultimate piece, In Tears, which she plays at a decidedly unsentimental fast tempo. I also rather wonder whether the almost waltz-like rhythm she establishes in No.8, Unutterable Anguish, sets up the wrong associations and isn’t itself rather shapeless, or whether the Dobrou noc (Good Night) figure in No.7 should be more sharply articulated. These are questions of perception, interpretation and individual judgement, of course

The notes are in Italian only. The recording is well judged in a small concert hall acoustic. Some performers add Set II of On an Overgrown Path as do, for example, Jan Bartoš on Supraphon and Zoltán Fejérvári on Piano Classics – with extra works too in their cases – and as you’ll find on Firkušný’s 1971 DG recording where he too plays both sets and adds the Zdenka variations.

I think Sanna Vaarni is at her best in the Sonata and at her most inconsistent in On an Overgrown Path but she is plainly a creative personality.

Jonathan Woolf


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