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Janácek's Moravian Folk Poetry in Songs

CD Review

I think it was old Charlie Spiller of Pitminister in Somerset who, as a reward for allowing Cecil Sharp to note down several of the folk songs he remembered, was invited to a local recital in which Sharp's arrangements of these songs were performed. Afterwards, in answer to the obvious question, old Charlie said: 'oh yes, I liked the fine singing well enough, but how can anyone hear the tunes with that piano racketting on all the time?' Although folk song is very often a self sufficient monody to the singers themselves, there is plenty of evidence of accompaniments over the centuries, be it canonic imitations and male dronings in the Malayan islands or the careful following of a Japanese flautist who, like a good military aide, rides a little behind his commander.

The danger is to become so involved in the provision of a setting that the folk song loses its characteristic naivety and is absorbed into a mass of mediocre musicians' music. To Vaughan Williams, a folk song setting was right if it grew out of love for the song rather than a mistaken need to 'make something of it'. Kodály was concerned to bring the countryside into town with only the slightest dressing up. 'Town clothes would make them awkward and ill at ease - design a costume that makes up for the missing fields and villages'.

Janácek's love of folk song and dance was immense. He wrote down over 300 tunes himself and assisted with the editing of several collections, quite apart from his constant incorporation of folk material into his own work. In 1890 he produced a collection of 174 Moravian songs, and some 10 years later added piano accompaniments to 53 of them, giving them the title Moravian Folk Poetry in Songs. This delightful collection is now recorded, under the same title, by soprano Eva Struplová and tenor Stanislav Predota, with Adam Skoumal, piano - and in a most appealingly appropriate style, fresh and folk-like, without any academic pretentiousness. After all, the folk singers themselves did not read music, and most probably didn't read at all!

This is a collection of exquisite little piano accompaniments too, clever but loving, supportive yet never assertive. There is the sound of the dulcimer or cimbalom imitated, or ornamentations like a flute or fiddle. In one of the songs, A Picture of my Beloved, the accompanment is like a discrete Bach prelude, and in another, A Good Hunt, the tenor is simply highlighted with occasional octave underlinings. The longest song is the last one, three and a half minutes, about a wedding far away, the singers taking alternate verses to a guitar-like strumming accompaniment. The shortest is The Promise, which takes just 25 seconds!

The disadvantage however is that there are no texts. It is true that the titles, which appear in English and German, convey something of what we know many folk songs are about, but Janácek, like Bartók, Nielsen and Britten, was responding to the poetry for which the music is only a conveyance. It is a shame not to have these simple texts in translation. But it is a rewarding CD.

Copyright © Patric Standford, March 31st 1999


Janácek's Moravian Folk Poetry in Songs

Eva Struplová (soprano)
Stanislav Predota (tenor)
Adam Skoumal (piano)

Studio Matous MK 0015-2 23               DDD



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