Leos Janáček: A Recollection (ECM New Series 1736)


Leoš Janáček
A Recollection

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.

Prague Chamber Choir: Dvořák/Janáček/Eben (ECM New Series 1539)

Prague Chamber Choir

Prague Chamber Choir
Dagmar Masková soprano
Marta Benacková alto
Walter Coppola tenor
Peter Mikulás bass
Lydie Härtlová harp
Josef Ksica organ
Josef Pancík conductor
Recorded November 1993 at Rudofinum/Dvořák Hall, Prague
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Formed in 1990, and emergent in the newly independent Czech Republic, the Prague Chamber Choir offers in its only ECM appearance this harmonious program of Bohemian church music. In the accompanying liner notes, Antonín Pešek draws our attention to the thriving Catholic pulse beneath what was then a topical spread of patriotic provincialism, and in so doing allows us to contextualize the music as part of an auditory archive. The three works on this program are like a spectrum of light, gradating from ultraviolet to infrared in the space of an hour.

Antonín Dvořák may not have been primarily known as a choral crafter, but his “honorary” Mass in D major, op. 86 (1887), through which the composer pays homage to the ruins of the past without succumbing to the “progressive” tendencies of their rebuilding, has an allure all its own. The Kyrie is a lovely opening, each vocal line clearly articulated in a loose macramé of faith. Glittering moments from the tenors crash like the crest of a wave over a sandy organ. Four soloists arise from this dense tide, of which the soprano is arrestingly emotive. The Gloria provides an exuberant change of pace, again set aloft by a gorgeous tenor section. The 10-minute Credo, on its own a masterful composition, is perhaps a touch saccharine and longwinded, even if it makes the Sanctus all the more jewel-like for its brevity. The latter’s exuberant opening, transcendent organ solo, and mounting volume coalesce like an unforgettable memory. The famous, often singled-out Agnus Dei remains the high point of the piece, a lullaby in spiritual clothing.

Leoš Janáček’s humble offering is Our Father (1901), a sensitively set Creed with an unmistakable harp ostinato and lush organ writing. The insightful tenor solos stick to the mind like glue, bonding love and awe through a single human voice. Says Pešek of this piece: “The calls for bread reflect the feelings of the defiant plebian, who does not demand the ‘consecrated bread of tradition,’ but the daily bread of true humanity.” And indeed, we find in it as much secular as spiritual solidarity. Janáček’s protean understanding of the human voice was entirely his own, and comes through in the physical shape in which every note seems to be described. Arousing in its flavors and unique in its textures, the shattering Amen at the end rings in the head and in the heart long after its resonance fades.

The Prague Te Deum (1989) of Petr Eben is a fitting cap to this fountain of vocal wisdom. Eben’s ode to renewal after oppression has a somewhat antiphonal structure and pays strict attention to the rhythms of its text. Like the sociopolitical about-face that undergirds its creation, the music vacillates between dissonance and harmony, if not embodies both simultaneously, as it basks in the glow of an uncertain future. The upward-looking ending revels in its own sound in the face of a God whose silence is music.

This is a proclamatory album representative of a significant trajectory in European history, but one often obscured by ECM New Series heavyweights. The music is cumulative, the performances committed, and the sound crystalline. A worthy addition to any choral enthusiast’s collection.

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