Camerata Zürich: On an overgrown path (ECM New Series 2597)

Camerata Zürich
On an overgrown path

Camerata Zürich
Igor Karsko
 direction, lead violin
Maïa Brami speaker
Recorded September and November 2017
Radiostudio DRS, Zürich
Engineer: Andreas Werner
Cover photo: Nadia F. Romanini
An ECM Production
Release date: November 26, 2021

“When the heart speaks, the mind finds it indecent to object.”
–Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Czech composer Leoš Janáček (1854-1928) penned his two-volume On an overgrown path between 1901 and 1908. While its significance in the pianistic pantheon is often eclipsed by canonical predecessors, its inventiveness is marked by nonorthodox shifts in harmony, each a full statement without the need to justify what precedes or follows. Given the music’s history and place in time, few would be up to the task of arranging it for string orchestra with equal fervor, but this is precisely what Daniel Rumler did in 2016 to luminous effect, breathing not new but old life into the lungs thereof.

As Thomas Meyer notes in the CD booklet, the title of On an overgrown path references a Moravian wedding song, said path signifying the new bride’s severance from a home to which she can never return. The result is a collection of what the composer called “distant reminiscences” of folk songs and practices. In pieces like “A blown-away leaf,” the underlying connectivity of the notes rises to the surface as treasure from past sediment. Given its basis on the rhythms of the Czech language, we can rightly think of these as “texts” across which editorial marks of prosody and poetry abound, shifting with lyrical abandon from elegy to triumph at the gesture of a bow. Dances (e.g., “Come with us!” and “They chattered like swallows”) testify to the power of memory to reside where it cannot be erased. The spiritual glimpses of “The Madonna of Frydek,” which paints in broad strokes yet with detailed awareness, lean into Janáček’s love for his daughter, Olga, who died in 1903.

Much of this music, however, is divided against itself. For instance, what begins as a frolic in “Words fail!” morphs into uncertain recollections and emotional vulnerabilities. The latter work their way through “Good night!” and “Unutterable anguish” with the wormlike glow of burning steel wool. The strings are especially able to draw out that inner turmoil with maximum acuity. Even the closing Allegro grasps a bouquet of fragmented selves, each a palimpsest of circumstance.

Between the cycle’s two books is a 10-part text by Maïa Brami, dedicated to Thomas Demenga, who was the director of the Camerata Zürich when the orchestral arrangement was being put together (and who suggested the writing of these texts). Brami describes the scene as follows:

“In the evening of his life, Leoš Janáček returns to his native forest. He does know it, but it is the last time. The composer is looking for Otto, the son of his muse, Kamila Stösslova, whom he loves passionately. The boy has wandered off into the woods. After years of passionate correspondence, the young woman finally accepted the first-name as an admission of shared love and came to visit him in his family home. When he met her at a spa in 1917, the artist was at his lowest ebb: he had not recovered from the death of his daughter Olga and his career was not taking off. Kamila, his ‘rose,’ his ‘red flower,’ will resurrect him.”

This panoply of yearnings and recollections (“God how I would love to hold on to the summer,” he cries, “I who waited for it all my life!”) unfolds like a biography in miniature, brilliantly capturing moving images of the composer’s childhood (“Deep down in my suitcase, a pot of honey from my father’s hives, heavy as my grief”), mortal anxieties, and the loves connecting the spaces between. Thus, the composer is able to dip his fingers into the font his creative inspiration. And as the end encroaches on him, he resigns to the fleeting nature of things.

The program is bookended by two kindred pieces. The Meditation on the Old Czech Chorale St. Wenceslas, op. 35a (1914) of Josef Suk (1874-1935) welcomes natural sonorities. Like tall grasses in a windswept landscape, it gives purpose to the elements by making known their otherwise invisible movements. The Notturno in B major, op. 40 (1875) by Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) closes with grace, folding us into a river’s current in search of an oceanic afterlife.

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