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Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
Violin Sonata (1914-21) [16:20]
Vitězslav NOVÁK (1870-1949)
Violin Sonata in D minor (1891) [24:42]
Oskar NEDBAL (1874-1930)
Violin Sonata in B minor Op.9 (1893-94) [22:58]
Ivan Ženatý (violin); Martin Kasík (piano)
rec. Martinů Hall, Academy of Music Prague, 8-10 December 2008
SUPRAPHON SU39782 [64.19] 
Experience Classicsonline

This superb disc is an honourable successor to the famous recital recordings that graced the Supraphon catalogue for many years. Avoiding the now almost ubiquitous obsession with cycles, themed releases or the dreaded compilation Supraphon have utilised their roster of Czech and Slovak artists to produce the most delightful and fascinating treasure trove of interesting repertoire in well-conceived couplings. Pre-eminent amongst the violin and piano teams were Josef Suk with Josef Hala or Jan Panenka. It is hugely to the credit of the artists on this new disc that they fully deserve to be mentioned in the same breath. Theirs is a very different performing ethic to that of their senior compatriots but no less valid.

Turning to the music there is here a fascinating mixture of acknowledged masterpiece and unknown curiosities. There are other elements to compare and contrast - Janáček’s Sonata comes from the extraordinary seventh decade of his life when he consistently found the compositional voice and musical language for which he became famous. In contrast the other two sonatas date from the early part of their composer’s lives and contain music that is not always indicative of their later work. The disc opens with the Janáček. From the strikingly resinous first note Ženatý utilizes the full tonal range of his magnificent Del Gesu violin to serve the wide stylistic and emotional range of this Sonata. The writer of the liner-notes declares the piece as “modern, non-Romantic”. Ženatý and Kasík’s particular triumph is to show how both musically and emotionally it sits on an historical cusp looking both forwards and back. The second of the four movements was the first to be written, in 1914. It aches with lyrical regret yet barely seven musical minutes later in the fourth movement Adagio Janáček writes harshly manic music that looks forward to From the House of the Dead and many of his great late works. There is a live recording in the Supraphon catalogue of Suk accompanied by Firkusny which I have not heard but I doubt that he risks hardening the tone as Ženatý does in the extraordinary fourth movement where the ferociously shuddering (yet marked muted) outbursts build to the final climax at around 3:12 before spasming away into silence. For comparison I listened to Yuuko Shiokawa accompanied by András Schiff on Decca. The technical accomplishment there is without reproach and Schiff has an elegant and cool approach that benefits much of the music. As a consuming extraordinary and revelatory performance they are however left so far behind this current disc as to almost be playing a different piece. If the definition of a great performance or recording is to make you realise all over again the greatness of a work then this is a great performance - probably the best I have ever heard.

After that it is literally a hard act for the Novák to follow! Probably my only criticism of this disc is the programme order. Here is a composer who has become increasingly familiar to collectors in recent years through a string of primarily orchestral and/or vocal recordings. As with many collectors the first piece of his I heard was the dramatic cantata “The Storm” in Zdeněk Košler’s recording - again for Supraphon (see review). That is still one of the gems of the Supraphon catalogue and well worth a visit if you like your choral music exciting, powerful and post-Romantic. This violin sonata, written - with considerable disagreement - as part of Dvořák’s composition class when Novak was just 21 is not a precursor to it. It is the longest of the three sonatas here recorded; without going back over the Janáček again - what he achieves in 16 concentrated minutes shows amazing compositional concentration. To be honest much of it rambles. Not that there aren’t extended passages of power and sometime Brahmsian sweep. Again I would disagree with the liner-note writer: I hear no Tchaikovsky here. For sure this is a young man’s music - confident and forceful - but nearly continuously overwritten. I have to say that both performers but particularly the pianist Kasík are quite superb at clarifying endlessly tempestuous and complex figurations that weigh down the musical lines without ever obviously benefiting the music. Towards the end of the second movement some calm prevails and there is a very slight echo of the Dvořák Sonatina in the third movement but this is soon swept away in yet more flailingly dramatic yet ultimately empty gestures. That being said - I can’t imagine a finer or better case ever being put for this Sonata. A word at this point about the technical aspect of the recording - gone forever are the stifled and clangorous pianos that often plagued Eastern European recordings. The excellent engineering has caught both performers in close but not claustrophobic sound with a gloriously rich and even piano tone - hats off to the piano tuner who gets a credit in the liner-notes! - revealing inner details even when Novák is at his most verbose! I would liken the general sound-stage to being sat in a prime seat close to the front of an intimate chamber venue. The sound is naturally integrated and not synthetically spread. In all ways ideal.

Which brings us to the final Sonata as programmed - by Oskar Nedbal, written in 1893-94 when the composer was just nineteen years old. The least well-known of the three composers here there was a tragic arc to Nedbal’s life which makes the power and promise of this piece all the more poignant. At the age of nineteen, as well as composing, he was violist in the world famous Czech Quartet. He conducted the Czech Philharmonic for a decade from 1896, wrote operettas and ballets that made him renowned throughout central Europe yet on Christmas Eve 1930 he committed suicide by jumping from the window of his dressing room at the Zagreb Opera House. The music for which he is best known - the extraordinarily poignant Valse Triste comes from his ballet-pantomime variously translated as Johnny Simpleton. It was this musical form that he all but invented but in turn it was swept away by the cultural upheavals following World War I. This left him falling back on a career conducting operetta - a genre in turn well past its heyday. With mounting debts and a compositional career he perceived as no longer appreciated or needed suicide resulted. How different it must have seemed aged 19 - together with Suk and Novák they formed the three stars of Dvořák’s composition class. With Suk as second violin he also proved himself one of the finest chamber players of his generation.

This Sonata was not even his first published piece and given that it was produced by the famous Berlin firm of Simrock it shows that to all intents and purposes Nedbal was a young composer poised at the beginning of an international career. Yet 120 years later he has been all but forgotten except by relative specialists. A rare disc of orchestral works on the ClassicO label conducted by Douglas Bostock (see review) emphasised the salon and lighter element of his output and two Supraphon discs of the aforementioned ballet-pantomimes is pretty much all there has been. So this Sonata represents the longest piece of abstract music with which to judge Nedbal’s talent. He is not found wanting. In the ten minute opening movement after almost Rachmaninovian figurations - yet written before he could have known such things! - it soon develops into music both powerfully urgent and lyrical. The longest of the three first movements here, it does not outstay its welcome - a beautiful singing second subject being one of many pleasures. With no access to scores for the Novák or Nedbal one relies on the ear all the more and certainly Nedbal seems to have a stronger sense of structure and development in his Sonata than Novák. Greater interplay between the instruments and passages of calmer reflection allow far more air into the music. The second movement develops a barcarolle feel and features double-stopping and melody lines reminiscent of Kreisler. In so doing Nedbal shows an earlier empathy for salon style music - no bad thing in itself whatever some may feel! Throughout Nedbal doesn’t seem to feel as obliged as Novák to ignore the folk-influenced tradition so evident in their teacher’s work. So no surprise that Polka-like elements should imbue the finale. Again there are rapid piano figurations underlining the essential drama of the piece but Nedbal is able to allow these to relax into long-limbed lyrical lines that pull the listener forward to a hugely satisfying conclusion. Not surprisingly for such an accomplished string-player himself all of the music is superbly crafted for the instrument; a discovery of a piece to which I shall return with pleasure and often.

So, all in all an essential purchase for anyone interested in the finest chamber music performances. I will be seeking out Ženatý’s Foerster concertos straight away on the strength of this disc, Czech Romantic music or really anything beautiful. All aided by excellent engineering and production. To summarise; a definitive Janáček, a powerful discovery in the Nedbal and a never less than fascinating “what-might-have-been” from Novák.

Nick Barnard 


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