Schumann: Kinderszenen & Waldszenen; Janáček: On the overgrown path I
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Hyperion monthly sampler – June 2014
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Book 1 No 01 Our evenings: Naše vecery
Book 1 No 02 A blown-away leaf: Lístek odvanutý
Book 1 No 03 Come with us!: Pojdte namí!
Book 1 No 04 The Frýdek Madonna: Frýdecká Panna Maria
Book 1 No 05 They chattered like swallows: Štebetaly jak laštovicy
Book 1 No 06 Words fail!: Nelze domluvit!
Book 1 No 07 Good night!: Dobrou noc!
Book 1 No 08 Unutterable anguish: Tak neskonale úzko
Book 1 No 09 In tears: V pláci
Book 1 No 10 The barn owl has not flown away!: Sýcek neodletel!
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 Janáček 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 Janáček had written, their impact quite out of proportion to their modest means and ambition’. Janáček 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 Janáček here. Similarly, ‘A blown-away leaf’ also begins simply, this time with the unmistakable hint of a wide-eyed folksong. But Janáček 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 Janáček 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 Janáček 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 Janáček 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 Janáček’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 Janáček 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 (‘sýček’) 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. Janáček 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.
from notes by Harriet Smith © 2014