Intimate Studies: Piano music by Janáček, Haas, Martinů and Suk

Lada Valešová, piano (Avie 2142)

1 May 2009 4.5 stars

Intimate StudiesThis disc of twentieth-century Czech piano repertoire features the music of four composers, namely Janáček, Haas, Martinů and Suk. But it is much more than a survey of the remarkable invention in piano composition to have come out of one small country in the last century. It has been thoughtfully programmed to highlight the connections between the composers and also to celebrate their individual qualities. Both Suk and Janáček studied with the great Antonin Dvořák, the former at the Prague Conservatory and the latter through a correspondence that developed into a friendship. Suk himself became a professor at the same Conservatory where his pupils included Martinů, whereas Janáček taught Haas at the Czech University and Conservatory in Brno. It is fascinating to discern the influence of the shared heritage in the music, as well as the innovations and stylistic independence which characterise each composer's individual voice. It also affords one the opportunity to encounter some rarely heard works alongside two piano cycles which are synonymous with the very idea of Czech piano music, Janáček's In the Mist and Suk's Spring Opus 22a, creating a sense of context which is of benefit to the listener's experience of all the pieces.

The disc opens with Janáček's In the Mist, and the most immediately striking feature of the performance is the sense of atmosphere which surrounds it. That Lada Valešová is in command of her instrument and possesses a keen musicality is never in question, but much more than that, she displays an uncanny ability to create pictures with her playing, somehow conjuring up a sense of place and time through her use of colour and rubato in the sparse textures of the opening of the cycle. Although the prevailing mood of the work was described by Janáček's biographer Vogel as 'one long struggle between resignation and newly felt pain', the sense of forward momentum in Valešová's playing prevents it from ever seeming lugubrious, and the wide variety of timbres extracted from the Steinway, from a muscular fortissimo to pianissimi which can be delicate or icy show how complex the underlying emotions are.

The same composer's Intimate Studies which lends the disc its title consists of eleven sketches, fragments and miniatures, ranging in length in this recording from eighteen seconds to one minute and twenty-eight seconds. Some have evocative titles such as 'So that one could never return' and some are entirely without title. The uncommonly informative liner notes show that they range in compositional date from 1886 to his last composition just days before his death in August 1928. Whether by design or coincidence, there is a sense of key relationships across the collection which means they function coherently as a sort of suite. Valešová relishes the pianistic writing of 'Melody', and realises all the romanticism in the Wolf-like 'Merely blind fate?' but overstates nothing, staying true to the scale of the pieces by presenting them with touching simplicity.

Written in 1935, Haas's Suite for Piano opus 13 owes its framework to the baroque keyboard suites of Handel and Bach. Valešová captures the improvisatory nature of the opening 'Praeludium' whilst underlining the fundamental, cantus firmus-like framework in the left hand with authority. The second movement, 'Con molta espressione' receives a contemplative performance with an ebb and flow around a sense of desolation and thwarted hope that rather recalls the emotional world of Act III of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. The 'Danza', 'Pastorale' and 'Postludium' which follow are lighter in humour, and Valešová highlights their iridescent harmonies and complex rhythms whilst bringing out the occasional detail in homage to the suite's baroque predecessors.

Martinů's Film en Miniature H.148 opens with an irresistible tango in which Valešová alternates between a taut precision and sultry, sinuous lines wound over the rhythmically precise bass that gives the movement its name. All of the quicker dances in this suite are notable for their steadiness in Valešová's hands which realises the writing with crystalline clarity. The lyrical 'Berceuse' and 'Chanson' are charming and persuasive, and the group is rounded off with an infectiously alive performance of the folk-inspired 'Carillon'.

The same composer's Spring H.127, which has only been recorded once before shares many attributes, both in terms of compositional style and Valešová's performance, with Film en Miniature but is a slightly more satisfying piece, its stand alone nature and greater length allowing more opportunity for a journey. Its underlying, compound rhythm and repetitive, bird-like six note figure in the right hand make for a languid, relaxed and rustic celebration of the season in the piece's outer sections, whilst the central section is notable again for a sprightly rhythmic accuracy which Valešová liquidates beautifully into the reprise of the lilting, opening figure.

Back on more familiar ground, the opening of Suk's Spring opus 22a allows Valešová to show her colours as an interpreter of more grandly romantic piano repertoire. Once past the initial statement, her response to the variety of ideas, be it quasi-impressionist rapid figuration or a deftly woven melodic line in right hand octaves, portrays a real feeling for the music's architecture that retains the attention throughout the course of the movement. The scherzando playfulness of the second movement, 'Breeze' is a delight, before the work takes a turn into the more abstract, emotional world with 'Awaiting'. The sense of joy and celebration of new life or re-awakening suggested by the idea of spring is retained in Valešová's performance – waiting can, after all, be a source of excitement, a sensation which is beautifully captured here. The mood changes with the fourth movement, enigmatically titled '***'. Valešová employs a more muted colour palette, making deft use of silence surrounding the rapidly cascading flourishes, and again showing her talent at creating atmosphere around the more contorted harmonies present in this piece. With the final movement, 'Longing', a certain virtuosity comes to the fore in this outpouring of romantic emotion which affords clarity to all the voices at work in the richly complex writing whilst allowing the melody and its associated decorations to sing with a poetic eloquence.

The overriding impression created by this disc is of an unpretentious talent, free of mannerism or gratuitous showmanship, employed at the service of music the pianist clearly loves. The programme is a delight throughout, spanning evocative depictions of nature, artless simplicity, heart-on-sleeve passion and spiky modernity. With good recorded sound and excellent notes, this is a refreshing release that will be enjoyed by many, and which may also serve to plug a repertoire gap in the collections of piano music enthusiasts.

By John Woods


Intimate LettersRelated articles:

CD Review: Janáček quartets from the Emersons (DG)
Opera Review: Jenufa at ENO (March 2009)
Concert Review: Janáček's Osud in concert at the Proms (August 2008)