Janáček: Solo Piano – Thomas Adès [Signum]

4 of 5 stars

Janáček
Po zarostlém chodníčku [On an Overgrown Path], Series 1 & II
From The Street. X. 1905, ‘Piano Sonata’
V mlhách [In the Mists]

Thomas Adès (piano)

Recorded in Henry Wood Hall, London, 13-15 December 2018


Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: July 2021
CD No: Signum Classics SIGCD600
Duration: 67 minutes

Thomas Adès is certainly multi-talented having forged a high-profile career as probably the finest English composer since Harrison Birtwistle, conductor and pianist, so one can only hope that this recital of virtually the complete solo piano music of Leoš Janáček will encourage people to investigate these bizarrely neglected, immensely attractive gems.

There are only four works to consider; Series I and II of On an Overgrown Path, the incomplete From the Street and the four movement In the Mists. As Paul Wingfield points out in his excellent notes, On an Overgrown Path has a complicated history where between 1900 and 1911 some of the pieces in Series I were written for harmonium, with the distinctive titles – which initially refer to specific events and then move to emotional responses to the death of his daughter Olga in 1903 – added post 1907. Series II has no titles, and other than the first, wasn’t published until after the composer’s death. Unlike Andras Schiff (ECM) and Radoslav Kvapil (Pantone) Adès omits the short, unfinished Vivo fourth piece. 

From the Street was written in late 1905 early 1906 to mourn the death of a workman František Pavlík at a rally supporting the Czech population of Brno’s request to set up a Czech University. Originally in three movements, alas Janáček tore out and burnt the third at the final rehearsal, the next time he heard it he destroyed the remaining two, and it only survived because the pianist Ludmila Tučková kept her copy and it wasn’t until 1924 that the composer allowed the remainder to be published. It is however open to question that he intended to call it a Sonata. By way of contrast, In the Mists was composed in 1912 and published a year later.

All of the music features open textures, many of the pieces have an almost naïve rhythmic insistence, virtuosity tends to be avoided, there is a fair amount of chromaticism (indeed there are occasions when In the Mists seemingly drifts towards atonality), as with Mahler, Janáček creates emotional ambivalence, where feelings change from bar-to-bar; like all great composers his unique voice is instantly recognisable. The Andras Schiff CD (entitled A Recollection) mentioned above was chosen for comparison because of the marked difference in their approaches, in that Adès takes just short of 67 minutes, Schiff almost 74 and makes far more use of the sustaining pedal.

In the second molto adagio movement of In the Mists, almost the same tempo is taken by both artists and also their use rubato and slight tempo variation, but Schiff’s right hand arabesques are softer and in the Andante he is more affectingly melancholic. From the Streets‘s second movement is called Smrt (Death) and here you would think that his very much slower tempo would bring a greater sense of mourning, and yet the way Adès weights each note to create a glacial tonal palette is highly affecting and just as moving. However, Schiff’s elegiac, more leisurely approach to the first piece of On an Overgrown Path, Our Evenings, has more feeling, and his tone in The Madonna of Frydek is surprisingly beautiful, the central climax worthy of Rachmaninov, as is the slight tempo change as the theme returns, although Adès’s greater rhythmic definition and better sense of line is superior to Schiff’s more episodic approach to They Chattered Like Swallows.

One could go on, comparing each track; there are two fundamentally different approaches to Janáček’s music on offer here. Adès seeks clarity of expression and texture so as to lay bare the composers extraordinary sound and emotional world, where, as he eloquently puts it in the booklets, ‘whether exact or angled slightly differently, every revisiting of a melody or a tonality, the outline of a route which has been walked down before… which miraculously sound once again in this intensely nostalgic music’, in essence he believes in simply letting the music speak for itself. Schiff, on the other hand, speaks as a great virtuoso pianist who uses every aspect of his technique to extract the last ounce of feeling and colour. Both approaches are valid and while Schiff has the greater humanity, Adès should be heard, so really you need both.

Turning briefly to the sound. As you would expect the 24bit, 96kHz download has greater body and presence than the compressed 16bit, 44.1kHz CD quality it was compared to (physical discs are in short supply at present), although despite Adès’s search for clarity the piano tone seems rather thin compared with recordings from say Hyperion, the treble metallic. The overall balance is nicely middle-distance, and there is a reasonable sense of the acoustic signature on the high-resolution as opposed to the usual digital void you find on the lower. Top marks for the booklet designer, the picture of the owl, which evinces the last of the first series of On an Overgrown Path, The Barn Owl has not Flown Away!, is startlingly evocative.

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