Songs – With and Without Words [Dvořák, Janáček & Smetana / Langridge, Minutillo & Schiff]

On an overgrown path – Book One
Gypsy Songs, Op.55
Trois polkas poétiques, Op.8
Diary of one who disappeared

Hannah-Esther Minutillo (mezzo-soprano)
Philip Langridge (tenor)
Members of The Geoffrey Mitchell Choir
András Schiff (piano)

Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: 19 March, 2008
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

András SchiffThis imaginatively planned recital featured some less familiar music by three great Czech composers.

Janáček’s On an Overgrown Path is an early piano work featuring a concise opening rhythmic and melodic idée fixe that is infinitely varied and transformed throughout Book One’s 30-minute span. András Schiff is something of a Janáček specialist and he gave a magnificent account of this work, suffused with melancholy and autumnal colours. He displayed subtle command of rhythm, dynamics and exquisite rubato, with some of his incredibly refined pppp playing bringing a lump to the throat.

Hannah-Esther MinutilloDvořák’s “Gypsy Songs” are gorgeously inventive and the Czech mezzo Hannah-Esther Minutillo sang them with some panache. However, the opening song was slightly compromised by a vibrato that came close to being a wobble and some dubious intonation, while the sixth song ‘Siroke rukavy’ would have benefited from more abandon and the last – a wonderful melody – more rapture. Schiff was again superb. He was less so in Smetana’s enigmatic Polkas, where refinement and restraint denuded the pieces of much of their impish wit.

After the interval, Philip Langridge, now in his late-sixties, essayed one of the greatest of all song-cycles, Janáček’s “Diary of one who disappeared”, in its full version, with a small contribution from Minutillo as the Gypsy and off-stage women’s chorus. The story is a mix of romanticism and racism. Boy meets girl in a forest, gets her pregnant and, because she is a gypsy, he has to leave his family and village to live with her.

In an ideal world the male lead would be a youthful singer with idiomatic Czech and it would be idle to pretend that there were no vocal shortcomings in this performance. Janáček often uses awkward upward intervals, some of which caused Langridge difficulties. While he still has projection, the tone occasionally lacked centred strength; two head notes came close to falsetto and the final, totally unexpected, high Cs, were rather painful. More disconcertingly, the small chorus sounded amateurish; the Czech of both it and Langridge also sounded less than authentic in comparison with the native-speaker Minutillo’s. In compensation there was much suitably anguished, plaintive singing and Schiff gave a well-nigh faultless account of the piano part, including a beautifully nuanced reading of the ‘Piano Solo’, the cycle’s thirteenth number.

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