MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

How Janáček Bucked the Trend

In a Janáček mood after hearing last night’s mesmerizing performance of Zápisník zmizelého (“The Diary of One Who Disappeared”) at the Summer Chamber Festival. This song cycle/minidrama of a hapless farm boy’s seduction by a mysterious Gypsy woman was performed with minimal but haunting staging. Great work by tenor Nicholas Phan, mezzo Sasha Cooke, and pianist Jeremy Denk, along with singers Rena Harms, Nerys Jones, and Rachelle Moss.

(Copy of the score here, with its killer tessitura for the tenor.)

Unfortunately I missed the prelude concert featuring Benjamin Beilman and Denk in Janáček’s Violin Sonata. (Beilman and cellist Efe Baltacıgil gave a marvelous rendition last week, along with pianist Anna Polonsky, of the rarely heard Shostakovich First Piano Trio.)


Here’s Ian Bostridge — who even made a documentary about Diary — on the real significance of Janáček’s legacy:

It’s telling, I think, that the voice came first. Janácek’s musical creativity needed an immersion in humanity, in emotion, in flesh and blood, to sustain it. In that sense, he was a world away from the mainstream of German modernism (Schoenberg, Webern et al) or the success story of international eclecticism, Stravinsky, for whom music was about music, not really an expressive art form at all. Stravinsky wrote few songs, and his one opera, ‘The Rake’s Progress’, brilliant and moving as it is, remains cumulatively cold and detached.

If Janácek’s music lives with an extraordinary power and urgency, it is because he bucked the trend of musical abstraction. He did so because he couldn’t avoid it, because it was in his temperament to confuse the personal and the aesthetic. This is something of an intellectual puzzle – how, after all, do we turn feelings into music? – and, at the same time, an artistic miracle.

Filed under: chamber music, Leoš Janáček

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