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Hyperion Records

CDA68030 - Schumann: Kinderszenen & Waldszenen; Janácek: On the overgrown path I
Mystic (2004) by Magdolna Bán (b1940)
Private Collection / Bridgeman Art Library, London
CDA68030

Recording details: March 2013
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: June 2014
DISCID: 01117220
Total duration: 74 minutes 26 seconds

GRAMOPHONE RECORDING OF THE MONTH
BBC MUSIC MAGAZINE RECORDING OF THE MONTH

'In Hamelin's latest disc of music by Janáček and Schumann, he shows himself a virtuoso in a deeper sense, a virtuoso in sound, colour and poetic empathy, one who, to quote Liszt, ‘breathes the breath of life’. Using his prodigious command in music of a transcendental difficulty—the Chopin-Godowsky Études, the major works of Alkan, Albéniz’s Iberia, etc—he displays gifts which show him as first and foremost a musician’s musician' (Gramophone) » More

'Setting aside a 2000 Danacord release featuring four movements from the first book of On the Overgrown Path, this is Marc-André Hamelin’s first extended exploration of Janáček's piano music. It proves to be a totally compelling experience confirming Hamelin’s strong empathy for the composer … Hamelin negotiates the emotional trajectory from carefree innocence to utter dejection through a masterly control of timbre and atmosphere. Deceptively simple melodic and chordal figurations are subverted as a result of Hamelin’s deliberately introverted playing and astonishingly delicate touch … he proves to be equally adept at exploring the more intimate side of the Schumann’s character and the two Schumann cycles here are absolutely magical' (BBC Music Magazine) » More
PERFORMANCE
RECORDING

Schumann: Kinderszenen & Waldszenen; Janáček: On the overgrown path I
Eintritt  [2'28]
Einsame Blumen  [2'25]
Verrufene Stelle  [2'42]
Herberge  [2'07]
Jagdlied  [2'25]
Abschied  [4'07]
Hasche-Mann  [0'33]
Bittendes Kind  [1'08]
Glückes genug  [1'12]
Träumerei  [2'51]
Am Kamin  [0'54]
Fast zu ernst  [1'56]
Fürchtenmachen  [1'36]

Marc-André presents a fascinating juxtaposition of two composers who are not obviously musically related, but who are proved on this album to be a felicitous combination.

Schumann’s well-loved Kinderszenen (‘Scenes from childhood’) cycle is a masterpiece: each piece is as deftly and exquisitely crafted as anything in his more outwardly sophisticated mode. From the haunting beauty of the opening ‘From foreign lands and people’ (‘Von fremden Ländern und Menschen’), via the spare eloquence of the central ‘Dreaming’ (‘Träumerei’), to the quiet rhetoric of ‘The poet speaks’ (‘Der Dichter spricht’), the listener is taken through nuances of emotion whose effects are heartrendingly poignant.

Waldszenen (‘Forest scenes’) is another collection of miniatures, and Schumann’s last major cycle for solo piano. This deeply ‘Romantic’ work in the most psychological sense of the word is no objective foray into the woods, but a very personal reaction to an imagined landscape; and equally striking is the sense that each piece represents just a shard of a larger experience. On the whole it is the more bucolic aspect that Schumann explores, though these pieces are not without darker shadows. And while they may be technically fairly straightforward, their changeability calls for the quickest of reactions and a wealth of subtle nuance.

Over half a century separates Schumann’s nature-inspired Waldszenen from the first book of Janáček’s On the overgrown path. The subject matter is darker and more oblique and the piano writing is deceptively treacherous, many of the difficulties far from overt. The title of the overall cycle refers to a Moravian wedding song, the bride lamenting that ‘The path to my mother’s has become overgrown with clover’. The sequence of ten pieces that comprises Book 1 constitutes, as the scholar John Tyrrell has written, some of the ‘profoundest, most disturbing music that Janáček had written, their impact quite out of proportion to their modest means and ambition’.


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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Friedrich Wieck was, as Schumann discovered, the father-in-law from hell. He so opposed the burgeoning relationship between the composer and his precious daughter—eight years Robert’s junior yet, one imagines, quite feisty enough to know her own mind—that he did everything in his power to break things up between them, from taking Clara on a seven-month concert tour to fighting the engagement in the law courts. As history relates, his efforts came to nothing, and love triumphed. While apart during that long tour in 1838, Robert and Clara wrote constantly to one other, and from Schumann streamed a succession of piano works, not least Kinderszenen, the most touching recollection of childhood. As he wrote to Clara, ‘Perhaps it was an echo of what you once said to me, that “Sometimes I seemed like a child”; anyway, I was suddenly visited by inspiration, and then I knocked off about thirty quaint little things, from which I have selected about twelve … You will enjoy them—though you will have to forget you are a virtuoso.’ When Kinderszenen was published the final tally of pieces was thirteen.

‘Knocked off’ hardly does these pieces justice; despite being modest in dimensions, each piece is as deftly and exquisitely crafted as anything in his more outwardly sophisticated mode. And though certain numbers may be simple enough for a reasonably talented child to play (or at least to stumble through) most are not, as witness the wildly exuberant ‘Knight of the hobbyhorse’ (Ritter vom Steckenpferd) or the manically gleeful ‘Blind man’s buff’ (Hasche-Mann). Among the most touching portraits here are the ‘Pleading child’ (Bittendes Kind), quietly insistent but ending, like the ‘Child falling asleep’ (Kind im Einschlummern), without resolution, tenderly catching the emotional inconsistency of youth. And Schumann conceives it beautifully as a cycle, from the haunting beauty of the opening ‘From foreign lands and people’ (Von fremden Ländern und Menschen), via the spare eloquence of the central ‘Dreaming’ (Träumerei), to the quiet rhetoric of ‘The poet speaks’ (Der Dichter spricht), the subject holding his audience rapt, his soliloquy ending in a whisper at the lower end of the keyboard.

Schumann’s Waldszenen (‘Forest scenes’) is another cycle of fragments, written in a matter of days over New Year, 1849; dating from eleven years after Kinderszenen, it was his last major cycle for solo piano. The forest that it explores was a subject close to the heart of any self-respecting Romantic, be they writer, poet, artist or musician. Its appeal lay in its contrast: nature at its most beautiful but also an unknowable place. But there’s more to it than that, for it is not simply about ‘nature’ per se but the notion of man’s position within that wilderness, and indeed how engagement with such a thing could in turn affect man’s own view of himself; the external as a means of examining the internal, in other words. Certainly, in Waldszenen this is no objective foray into the woods but a very personal reaction to this imagined landscape; and equally striking is the sense that each piece represents just a shard of a larger experience, an aural snapshot, if you will.

On the whole it is the more bucolic aspect that Schumann explores, though these pieces are not without darker shadows. And while they may be technically fairly straightforward, their changeability calls for the quickest of reactions and a wealth of subtle nuance.

All seems well in the first number (Eintritt, ‘Entry’), its gently murmuring theme welcoming us into the forest in the most benign manner possible. The energetic Jäger auf der Lauer (‘Hunters on the lookout’), horn calls aplenty, gives the lie to the idea that Schumann—beset by personal demons by this point in his life—had lost his compositional way, and there’s a delightful mock-seriosity to the throwaway ending. The mood switches again in the next two pieces, Einsame Blumen (‘Lonely flowers’) and Verrufene Stelle (‘Place of evil fame’), tinged in turn by sadness and then a persistent unease that is only banished by the rollicking Freundliche Landschaft (‘Friendly landscape’), which is followed by a study in consolation and reassurance, Herberge (‘Shelter’). With No 7, the famous Vogel als Prophet (‘Bird as prophet’), Schumann seems to reach almost proto-Impressionistic realms, its central chorale-like section lending it an almost sacred gravitas. We return to compositionally safer, more pastoral territory with Jagdlied (‘Hunting song’), which presents an image of the play of horses’ hooves and the jolly red coats of the hunstmen, a notably child-friendly vision. With Abschied (‘Farewell’), the innocence of the opening seems to be regained as we bid the forest a poignant farewell.

Over half a century separates Schumann’s nature-inspired Waldszenen from the first book of Janácek’s On the overgrown path. But the wind now blows several degrees chillier, the subject matter is darker and more oblique and the piano writing is deceptively treacherous, many of the difficulties far from overt. So it’s striking to think that the impetus behind these pieces was not as piano music at all but as arrangements of Moravian folksongs for harmonium. This, at least, was the starting-point, when in 1897 Janácek was asked to contribute to a series of works for harmonium under the title Slovanské melodie. And it was as part of the fifth volume of this publication (dating from 1901) that three of the pieces that became parts of On the overgrown path first saw the light of day. However, they had by this point become mood pieces rather than straightforward arrangements of folksongs. Janácek added two more numbers the following year but the remaining five (Nos 3, 5, 6, 8 and 9) weren’t completed until 1908 (Nos 3, 6 and 9) and 1911 (Nos 5 and 8).

The title of the overall cycle refers to a Moravian wedding song, the bride lamenting that ‘The path to my mother’s has become overgrown with clover’. One of the striking aspects about this cycle is the titles themselves. The earliest five pieces to be composed originally appeared without titles, and it was only at the behest of the music critic Jan Branberger, who liked the pieces and requested some hint as to their inspiration, that Janácek jotted down a sequence of descriptive headings. Yet those proved to be no more than an interim thought: on reflection they shifted further, and sometimes to interesting effect. No 6, for example, went from ‘The bitterness of reproach’ via ‘The bitterness of disappointment’ to its final title, ‘Words fail!’.

The sequence of ten pieces that comprise Book 1 constitutes, as the scholar John Tyrrell has written, some of the ‘profoundest, most disturbing music that Janácek had written, their impact quite out of proportion to their modest means and ambition’. Janácek is one of those figures whose music is seldom what it seems: even an outwardly or apparently carefree idea is rarely allowed to remain that way, with the composer twisting the knife via darkened harmonies, obsessive rhythms or the juxtaposition (in the operas particularly) with a dramatic context that makes it clear that all is far from well. Frequently pieces within On the overgrown path begin disarmingly but are emotionally derailed, within the briefest of spans.

The first number, ‘Our evenings’, is one such instance, setting off gently but the sense of calm viciously interrupted by a violent inner section. Though it returns to its initial mood, it is now uneasy, its equilibrium shattered by the outburst. The piece was initially called ‘Glance to’: what are we to make of this enigma? Certainly, there’s nothing cosy or homely about the scene conjured up by Janácek here. Similarly, ‘A blown-away leaf’ also begins simply, this time with the unmistakable hint of a wide-eyed folksong. But Janácek soon begins torturing it, inserting pauses that stretch its phrases into irregular lengths, and, as the emotional temperature rises, breaking up the lines into impassioned gasps, complete with trills, that seem to have less to do with the piece’s final title and more to do with the initial one, ‘Declaration’, which the composer explained was a declaration of love—and not a straightforward one, to judge from the overwhelming sense of edginess.

‘Come with us!’, an extrovert polka, offers a more cheerful interlude, though even here Janácek can’t resist adding darker colourings that offer moments of introspection. But bucolic good cheer is entirely absent from the next piece, as the composer draws inspiration from the Madonna at Fry´dek (now Fry´dek-Místek), which wasn’t far from Hukvaldy, the village where he had been born. This may be a reminiscence of childhood visits to the famed Madonna, who had been the subject of pilgrimages for centuries. But it is equally possible that Janácek was in fact recalling a rather more recent visit to the town that he’d made with his wife Zdenka. In this musical evocation, the hymn tune traditionally sung by pilgrims is heard approaching and then receding, as the faithful disappear into the distance.

This is followed by a return to extroversion, ‘They chattered like swallows’, which is dominated by an angular, folk-imbued motif characterized by a wide span and chromatic twists (the left hand sometimes in sync with the right, at other times imitating it), until a Meno mosso section features more sustained writing in the left hand, while the right simply repeats the outline of the first bar, as if incapable of finishing the phrase.

In ‘Words fail!’ it seems that the depth of emotion overwhelms the protagonist, try as he might to get the words out. A greater sense of calm is achieved only at the end—though it may be emotional exhaustion rather than repose. ‘Good night!’ was, like ‘The Fry´dek Madonna’, published in 1902 and in it Janácek sets the scene with a plaintive accompaniment, the left hand tracing a descending line while the flickering right hand focuses on the interval of an octave. The melody that then appears, triple piano in the right hand and marked espressivo, is built from that left-hand line, the flickering motif now also, in the alto register, tracing the interval of a third. But this idea gradually grows more insistent and comes to overpower the melody, demonstrating early use of a technique that became a hallmark of Janácek’s inherently edgy style, and something possibly derived from Moravian folk music.

‘Unutterable anguish’ continues the downward trajectory with its mood of unremitting despair and its sense of being mired around the same basic few notes and harmonies, as if unable to break free from the circle of grief until the piece’s closing bars, marked Adagio. And if the grief seems initially less plangent, less rebarbative in ‘In tears’, it is perhaps because emotion is almost inexpressible: as Janácek made apparent in a letter to Branberger, this number is a recollection of the death of the composer’s beloved daughter Olga in 1903: ‘Perhaps you will sense weeping in it … the premonition of certain death. During the hot summer nights that angelic being lay in such mortal anguish.’

To close, a work whose title is highly evocative. The barn owl had long been associated with bad omens, from the Ancient Greeks onwards. The word in Czech (‘sýcek’) also refers to a person who is pessimistic. It makes a suitably dramatic entrance, the loud flourish imitative of the bird’s wings, which is followed by the cry of the owl (a two-note descending phrase), set against a tremolo that adds to the oppressive atmosphere. What comes next is quite unexpected—a chordal theme, faintly religious in its overtones, that moves the music from minor-key instability to a major-key reassurance. Janácek plays on the tension of juxtaposing these two ideas until eventually the confident demeanour of the major-key section is displaced by a darker mood. It ends with a final reference to the call of the barn owl, its lack of resolution entirely in keeping with the cycle as a whole and leaving the listener with a profound sense of disquiet.

Harriet Smith © 2014

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