Classical CD Reviews

“LEOS JANACEK: The Piano” = On an Overgrown Path, Books I – II; Moravian Dances; Zdenka Variations; Piano Sonata 1.X.1905; In the Mists; Miniatures; Album for Kamilu Stoesslovou; Moravian Folksongs – Cathy Krier, p. – Cavi Music (2 CDs)

A survey of the piano music of Leos Janacek by Cathy Krier reminds us of the often visceral, original imagination of this composer’s treatment of his Moravian roots.

Published on December 9, 2013

LEOS JANACEK: The Piano” = On an Overgrown Path, Books I – II; Moravian Dances; Zdenka Variations; Piano Sonata 1.X.1905; In the Mists; Miniatures; Album for Kamilu Stoesslovou; Moravian Folksongs – Cathy Krier, p. – Cavi Music 8553290 (2 CDs), 60:01,  50:14 [Distr. by Allegro] (8/13/13) ****: 

Cathy Krier (b. 1985) is a Luxembourg-born artist whose studies with Pavel Gililov, Robert Levin, and Cyprien Katsaris have led her to explore the music of Leos Janacek (1854-1928) in depth. This survey (rec. February-March 2013) of the Janacek keyboard oeuvre will likely assume a place near in spirit and excellence to that achieved almost two generations ago by Czech master Rudolf Firkusny.

Krier opens with the extended suite On an Overgrown Path (1900-1911).  The Janacek style of Slavic temper, shifting and angular melodic tropes, passing dissonances, rhythmic asymmetry, and a dynamic range of wide colors – including the rare indication of con durezza (“harshly”) – combine to create an idiosyncratic, highly condensed expression of intimate feeling. The first piece, “Our evenings,” might well serve as a counterpart to Schumann’s Des Abends from his Op. 12 Fantasiestuecke. “A blown-away leaf” the composer once described as “a love song.” The piece shifts its rhythms rather subtly from 2/4 to 5/8 while exploiting Hungarian cimbalom resonance.  After a gentle polka in D and D-flat called “Come with us!” Janacek intones religious fervor in “The Frydek Madonna,” a reference to a church in Silesian Moravia on the Polish border. Chords and tremolos combine, once more in the manner of the cimbalom. Four of the sections, “Words fail!”; “Good night!”; “Unutterable anguish”; and “In tears” likely indicate a lovers’ tragic parting. At several points in their progressions, we can hear the influence of plainchant and Debussian harmony, cross-fertilizing Janacek’s explosive Moravian rhythmic energy.  “The barn owl has not flown away!” combines etude and ballade, a rather assertive and grandly-mounted piece in striking colors.

Book II opens Andante, progressing by glistening chords and vaguely pentatonic scales, exotic but less adventurous than the preceding pieces. The Allegretto proffers toccata effects in arpeggios and broken scalar patterns, almost a Debussy arabesque, but more mercurially percussive. The Piu mosso explores mixed agogics, a knotty piece with various effects, like trills, slides, and parlando melodic riffs. The ensuing Allegro looms large, rather in the spirit of Grieg, a stomping rustic dance with jabbing accents. A quasi-chorale evolves while ostinati and peasant whirls surround it. The arch trills might anticipate bird calls in Messaien. The last of the set, Vivo, might take its inspiration from a Chopin mazurka, but this piece assumes a percussion more akin to Bartok. A whimsical element intrudes, maybe a cousin of Debussy’s General Lavine. Another Moravian miniature of fleet power, Ej, danaj! (1892) concludes the sequence with more proof of Krier’s tumultuous virtuosity.

Dvorak’s sets of Slavonic Dances. Several of the dances last twenty-five seconds or less to play. Krier catches our ears with Kozusek, a little firecracker that sets us on our heels. Starodavny ripples with quick trills. Korycansky trojak combines Brahms, Liszt, and Moravia in one fell swoop, barely a minute long. Trojak offers elements we know from Smetana but here enriched by a more acidic soil. Another stomping dance, Celadensky, closes the set.

A piece from 1880, Variations for Zdenka, concludes Disc 1. A piece like Grieg’s Ballade may be its precursor. The modal syntax remains quite conservative by Janacek’s later standards, the variations procedure consonant with predecessors like Schumann and Brahms.

Disc 2 begins with one of Janacek’s most profoundly concentrated works, his Piano Sonata 1.X.1905, based on a political incident Janacek witnessed in Brno. A Czech university student, Frantisek Pavlik, died of a German bayonet inflicted during a peaceful protest. Originally, in three movements, Janacek destroyed the last, a funeral march. The two remaining movements, Con moto and Adagio (Der Tod) provide much lyric passionate drama for Krier to execute. The first movement, “Foreboding,” contrasts different views of anguish, using E-flat Minor as its harmonic basis. Krier mounts the tension quite palpably as the ostinato effects permeate meandering rhythmic ambiguities, finally resting on a ppp cadence rife with dread. Two intervals of a fourth, derived from the first movement build the fatal second movement, urging a percussive mania that climaxes in repeated chords and a sforzatissimo reprise. The emotional surge of this music proves exhausting, as it should be: witness Janacek’s epigraph for the fallen carpenter: “He came merely to champion higher learning and has been slain by cruel murderers.”

In the Mists (1912) may describe Janacek’s spiritual condition in four movements, each tinged by passion and melancholy. Half-tones and harmonic ambiguity anticipate Prufrock’s decisions and a hundred indecisions. The opening Andante sets a romantic tone for the suite. The Molto adagio adds the element of brief, mercurial shifts of mood and temper, repeated riffs, and lulling colors.  If the piece reminds us of a Beethoven bagatelle, the association may not be accidental. Eastern tropes in chant style inform the Andantino, while the concluding Presto returns to tentative and meditative phrases, sometimes in zither effects. Krier captures their ruminative, elusive character even as she asserts their emotional power.

Krier then explores nine Miniatures, pieces she urges enjoy “a truly solid technical and pianistic standing.” The earliest piece (1877) is a Rondo with Chopin traits, impishly percussive. In Remembrance (1886) is an album-leaf that nods to Grieg. To my Olga (1896) presents a brief love letter. Lord Jesus Christ is Born (1909) offers a counterpart to a Bach chorale-prelude. Moderato (1911) proffers some audacious harmonies under an ostinato. Cradle Song (1920) once more turns to Grieg’s directness of expression. Melodie (1923) could be a Gershwin e discard of twenty seconds’ duration. Untitled (1924) has a touch of the blues. Malostransky Palace (1927) carries an oriental affect, exotic but ephemeral. Krier then traverses the four pieces that comprise the Album for Kamila Stoesslova (1927-1928). Bagatelles all, they romantically suggest moods and shifting images in the manner of Dvorak’s Cypresses. The lengthiest is called “So that one could never return,” a sentiment close to Thomas Wolfe. A series of bright chords concludes the set, with “The Golden Ring.”

Lastly, Krier performs that 1922 Moravian Folksongs, music to which Janacek devoted a lifetime of study. The often gloomy cast of the music reflects the guttural sound of the native Czech language, since “the Czech tongue is not particularly melodic.” Abrupt and heavily punctuated and ornate, the riffs convey an elementary power of expression. “A meteorite that landed in music history” still serves as a definition of Janacek, the epithet from Milan Kundera.

—Gary Lemco




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