Janáček wrote some strange pieces, many of which don’t fit easily into the forms we readily associate with art-music. Examples include the Capriccio for piano and brass with its weird, subtitle Vzdor or ‘Defiance’. Or there’s The Wandering of a Little Soul, which could be perceived as occupying some kind of halfway house between violin concerto and a rather turbulent tone poem (much of its material crops up in his Dostoevsky inspired opera From the House of the Dead). Among his bigger pieces The Glagolitic Mass is arguably is less designed for devotional purposes than it is intended as a rite of pan-Slavic affirmation. While opera in general requires the suspension of disbelief on the part of the spectator or listener, some of Janáček’s involve plots which are devoid of any kind of ecological validity, not least when one considers their dates of completion. I’m thinking here of The Makropulos Case (1926) or even more particularly of The Excursions of Mr Brouček to the Moon and to the Fifteenth Century, first mooted in 1908 and eventually performed in 1920, the Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure of its time. Maybe Janáček was a maverick, but that word does little justice to the consistency of his inspiration throughout what is a magnificent, singular oeuvre. In my view he was a revolutionary genius, one who often sought to take local inspiration to fuel music of universal relevance and power.
Perhaps the best example of all his ‘anomalies’ is Zápisník zmizelého, more familiar to non-Czechs as The Diary of One Who Disappeared. What exactly is it? Most pundits don’t hesitate to categorise it as a song-cycle but I beg to differ. I recently read a fine essay on the piece—essay is precisely the right word, so taut was the argument and rich the detail—by none other than one Nicky Spence, the soloist on this pulsating new disc. This young man writes as well as he sings, and by Jove can he sing! But there’s another element here, one that reinforces the view that the Diary is anything but a conventional cycle. Its success in performance arguably depends as much upon the theatrical instincts of the tenor (the main, but far from the only singer) as it does upon his musical prowess. Spence is unquestionably one of our finest singing actors, and his palpable enthusiasm for Janáček is most convenient, given that he is first among the performers here who provide this infrequently performed masterpiece with its most convincing modern recording to date. While much of this is down to Spence’s judiciously deployed dramatic instincts (and his seemingly excellent Czech) the common denominator in all 22 numbers of the Diary here is in fact the pianist Julius Drake. In this sequence he is especially outstanding—I baulk at using the conventional term ‘accompanist’. It strikes me that Drake may actually be the one pulling the strings; his flexibility and ear for detail are exceptional. Should he fancy the challenge, so idiomatic and natural is his Janáček playing that I would be fascinated to hear his personal ‘take’ on this composer’s modest but idiosyncratic piano oeuvre. Completing the ensemble in this performance are the fine Czech mezzo-soprano Václava Housková and the female vocal trio simply known as Voice; their other-worldly stylings briefly provide a kind of Greek choros in the central section of the work.
The Diary of One Who Disappeared is generally considered to be the first creative fruit of the composer’s infatuation with Kamila Stösslová, whom he first encountered directly before commencing work on the piece. Trapped as he was in a loveless marriage, their chaste encounters in the spa town of Luhačovice during July 1917 augured an Indian summer of creativity which lasted throughout Janáček’s final decade, and which spawned the majority of his major masterpieces. No surprise then that there is a cloying mood of repression in this work, a latent dam of emotion and frustrated erotic desire that’s fit to burst, and which is fervently conveyed by Drake’s tempestuous yet simultaneously reined-in account of its instrumental heart, the Intermezzo erotico. There is a frankness in his playing here that is really discomfiting, even more so than Thomas Adès’ more angular account for Ian Bostridge on Warners (formerly EMI). That disc was surely the market leader before this newcomer—Bostridge is also an accomplished actor while Adès always finds something fresh to say about whatever he plays—but the new issue really scores with the deployment of the seductively earthy yet rounded mezzo voice of Václava Housková, whose contributions to the three central ensemble numbers seem more natural and idiomatic than Ruby Philogene’s on the rival disc. Sample her mesmerising account of the heady gipsy song Bože dálný, nesmrtelný (God all-powerful, God eternal), which stands out also for Drake’s immaculate pacing. The impact of this middle group is further sharpened by the spine-chilling off-stage murmurings of the trio Voice, who truly provide subchoral ‘effects’ quite unlike those in any previous recording I’ve heard.
It's the presence of these songs nine to thirteen which truly confirm the notion that the Diary is actually a ‘pocket opera’ rather than a song-cycle, a view emboldened by the composer’s peculiar stage directions which are described in detail in Nigel Simeone’s model notes. It’s hardly an original insight; the Diary was in fact presented by the Royal Opera House at its Linbury Theatre this summer in a staged version directed by Ivo van Hove. Most of the reviews I read, alas, were less than flattering. Nevertheless, Janáček’s structure seems to imply a neat division into three ‘mini acts’, the first and last of which rely solely upon tenor and pianist.
So what does Spence himself bring to this Diary? A tenor voice with unusual depth and which can soar nobly, he consistently produces a beautiful sound in music whose beauty is not always obvious. His Czech seems pleasingly natural to me at least (although I’m from Stockport). Whatever the language, in his reading of the second number Ta černá cigánka (That black-eyed gipsy) Spence sows the seeds of the obsessive spirit that dominates the first part of the cycle; this reaches a peak in Hajsi, vy sivi volci (Hey, my tawny oxen) which exudes operatic intensity. This is singing whose profound humanity is aptly matched by Drake’s lithe pianism. By the final ‘third’ of the sequence, Spence brilliantly, and most musically captures that sense of the protagonist being absolutely stuck between rock and hard place before the Diary concludes with the rationalisations of Můj drahý tatíčku (Father, how wrong you were) and the resignation and resolution of S bohem, rodný kraju (Then farewell, distant land) .
This interpretation of the Diary surely stands among the best of all, and in terms of modern recordings I feel it trumps the Bostridge/Adès version ultimately by dint of its searing theatricality and the consistently focused performances of these performers. Hyperion’s sound is superfine and wonderfully natural.
The couplings constitute far more than fillers. The early Moravian folksongs sound astonishingly advanced for 1890, almost Bartókian at times. Polajka (Pennyroyal) is a tender song of temptation, sublimely delivered by Nicky Spence. In the essay to which I referred earlier, he alludes to a love for his native Scottish folksong, and Polajka could almost be from that neck of the woods. Václava Housková then sings the brief, understated Záře od milého (Heat from my love) which boasts a chord-sequence that could come straight from a Jacques Brel chanson. Komu kytka (Who’s the posy for?) is a sad call-and-response duet. These songs are too little known. The disc is completed by a raw and rustic reading of the original version of Říkadla, the eight rhymes dominated by animal characters, and the fine singing is further enhanced by the perky clarinet of Victoria Samek. It’s a terrific little collection which epitomises Janáček’s unique synthesis of traditional and contemporary elements. While the musical merits of all these delightful little songs are considerable, they also act as refreshing palate-cleansers after the intensity of The Diary of One Who Disappeared, possibly the most haunting and original work Janáček ever composed. I suspect he himself would have been most moved by this exceptional performance.