András Schiff piano
Recorded January 2000, Schloss Mondsee, Austria
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher
“And it floated along on the water that day, like white swans.”
–Leoš Janáček, on tossing his score for the 1905 Sonata into the Vltava River
Intimacy and the piano make for an inseparable pair. At its best, the instrument paints an image of a composer in solitude, forging from its complex array of mallets, strings, and keys a music of one’s own. This is especially apparent in András Schiff’s peerless recital of Leoš Janáček (1854-1928), at last given the ECM makeover it deserves. Drawing from Moravian folk melodies and less discernible influences, Janáček’s pianism, by way of Schiff, is all about heart.
The Andante of In the Mists (V mlhách), composed in 1912, plays like a guitar, strings pressed rather than plucked, given renewed life in surroundings of waning visibility. One immediately notices the delicacy of the Schiff touch, and beneath it the supremely robust evocation of the melodic line that balances its way throughout the program’s remainder. He continues pulling at hidden energies in the Adagio that follows, working magic in small bursts. Each emotion falls with the insistence of late summer rain toward the transfixing Presto. One finds here the incredulity of the melodic gesture played out against itself in a roiling sea, where darkness lives only in our dreams.
The Sonata 1.X.1905 (From the street) is an incomplete work written, we are told, in memory of Frantisek Pavlik, a young Czech carpenter bayoneted during a Brno demonstration on 1 October 1905 in the name of higher learning. Dissatisfied with the result, Janáček burned the third movement, a funeral march, and cast the first two into the Vltava. It might have been lost forever had not Ludmila Tučková, who gave its premier in January of 1906, announced that she still had a copy in her possession. Each of its survivors is a mirror of the other, a long and soulful stream that leaves us lost and without company at their conclusion.
The miniatures of On an overgrown path (Po zarostlém chodníčku) form a pinnacle of the composer’s chamber output. Book I of 1908 is the more programmatic of the two. With such titles as “Our evenings” (Naše večery) and “A blown-away leaf” (Lístek odvanutý) at the outset, we are never in doubt as to what is being described. Yet even without these, we can feel our toes spreading in wild grasses, hear the music of autumn drifting across the dawn. The lovely reverberations of “The Madonna of Frydek” (Frýdecká panna Maria) and “Good night!” (Dobrou noc!) linger throughout later vignettes, such as “In tears” (V pláči) and in the call and response of “The barn owl has not flown away!” (Sýček neodletěl!). These last paint an emotional portrait of a composer bereaving the premature death of his daughter, Olga. Such diaristic approaches to musical experience are furthered in Book II (1911), where an Orphic, undulating Andante sits beside a bipolar Allegretto. The concluding three sections fall under the subtitle “Paralipomena” (or supplements), of which the Allegro leaves the most indelible mark.
A recollection (1928) plays us out with the grace of a sunflower bending to the wind.
Although the music of Schiff’s third ECM album evokes so much in the way of sight and sound, it rests firmly on silence insofar as it worships the internal impression, which is ultimately inarticulable. Try as they might, these lips produce nothing worth hearing in light of the music at hand, and so I type instead, hoping that my arbitrary dance of fingers on a keyboard of a rather different sort have done even a modicum of justice to what can more easily be known from buying this superb album and experiencing it for yourself.