This is an important release. Janáček’s Diary song-cycle has seen a resurgence of interest of late; even so it should be even better known still. Nicky Spence’s searing yet beautiful account with admirable support from Julius Drake makes for compelling listening.
Drake’s way with the highly individual piano-writing makes much of the harmonics, sonority and percussive demands. Spence, always a fine recitalist, here shows that his lyrical voice is now developing in fascinating ways. He still has the bright fluidity atop the stave but there is now a bronzy heroic quality at the core that brings the more dramatic, desperate and impassioned moments to vivid life. Yet there is a sense of sadness that pervades the whole—his voice suits the idiom. His words are astonishingly clear too so that even a non-Czech listener can easily follow along with the text provided without getting lost.
In the few songs that she takes a role Václava Housková also makes a strong impression with focus and clarity. For those with operatic leanings, and Janáček left an extraordinary canon of stage-works, Housková may lack the voluptuousness for the young gypsy girl whose appearance changes the life of the young man. That said, given the range of expression of Spence’s journey, the relative straightforwardness of Housková’s contributions provide a telling and vital foil. The VOICE trio make their brief presence felt, too, and complete a winning performance of music that gets under the skin.
The ‘fillers’ are anything but. Řikadla (Nursery rhymes) opens with VOICE playing with sonority and vocal tone in a characterful, suitably childish way and then towards the end of the first song enters the clarinet of Victoria Samek. Her characterful playing dazzles, enchants and exudes sheer fun. Drake provides the keyboard ‘bricks’ that underpin the whole unobtrusively yet significantly. Moravian Folk Poetry allows Housková to show her considerable skill at mood-painting alongside Spence. They duet enchantingly and their plaintive voices capture the solemnity integral to much of the text, yet there is restrained and overt humour present too. Drake’s light and elegant playing brings the calm, colours and a wonderful sense of the improvisatory as well as rhythmic vitality to the dances.