Listening to the music of Leos Janácek has some similarities to spending time with a small child. It demands your full attention. The music is gloriously unpredictable, anarchic, free-spirited and original. Every now and then it comes up with something remarkably profound, but nor is it afraid of naïvety.
There are 46 tracks on this disc, ranging in length from only 12 seconds to just under four minutes. This incredible compression has less to do with economy of means than with Janácek's habit of expressing each passing impression and emotion in his music. The 12 second piece (a piano miniature), for example, is an outpouring of passion to his beloved Kamila Stösslová written several days before the composers death. Entitled 'The Golden Ring', it encapsulates the urgency of the old man's unconsummated longing for the illicit love of Stösslová, a much woman much younger than Janácek and another man's wife.
Stösslová was also Janácek's inspiration for the song cycle which makes up the majority of this disc, 'The Diary of One Who Disappeared'. Like Schubert's 'Winterreise', this cycle is based on a set of pastoral love poems but there the similarities end. Where 'Winterreise's landscape is cold and dead, 'The Diary's is sultry and full of the smell of ripening wheat; where Schubert's hero simply pines for the distant beloved, Janáceks not only consummates his love but shares the singing with his lover. There's a wonderful moment at the end of the cycle where the poet, who has disgraced himself with a gypsy girl, laments that "He who has gone astray must suffer for his sins," to music in which Janácek struggles to conceal a mood of jubilation beneath a very surface-deep penitence.
Janácek won his fame as an opera composer, and in this cycle he never fails to capture the dramatic possibilities of the text. Even his instrumental music tends to be built around a series of expressive gestures, with the musical structure generated from the moment upwards. So don't expect polite, well-rounded stanzas in this song cycle any more than you would from the cast of Eastenders. Instead you get all the violent changes of direction of real life, compressed into aphoristic utterances. The effect can be alarming, but never boring.
Tenor Ian Bostridge, pianist Thomas Adès and mezzo-soprano Ruby Philogène offer rapt and faithful performances, although Philogène could do with being a bit more seductive in the role of Zefka the temptress.
The disc includes a set of Moravian Folksongs in piano transcriptions as well as a miscellaneous collection of piano pieces, and earlier versions of two songs from 'The Diary' as fillers. --Matthew Shorter
Find more music at the BBC This link will take you off Amazon in a new window