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Janacek: 'Diary of a Young Man who

CD Review

Leos Janacek, born in 1854 in Moravia, a land of dark, dense forests, had obvious links with 19th century nationalist traditions, but was also vividly responsive to the desperations of our war-racked human story, writing almost all the music we remember him by over the two decades previous to his death in 1928. He was not, like Fibich or Sibelius, a 'European', preoccupied, in symphonic abstraction, with conflicts between the private and the public life, but was essentially a theatre composer, living in a specific community, creating 'slices of life' even more potent than those typical of verismo opera, in a language both topical and local. His vocal lines make audible, visible, even tactile, the people living and suffering in his world, for the melodies' short, reiterated motives echo the word- and body-gestures of rudimentary human creations, while the orchestra 'incarnates' the natural and social environment they inhabit.

Since Janacek equivocates between 'unconscious' Nature and the hyperconscious modern psyche, it may not be fortuituous that his most representative works were composed just before, during, and just after the First World War that delivered so brutal a blow to the traditional concept of 'Europe'. This applies not only to his operas, which are among the supreme musical-theatrical works of our century, but also to his chamber music; even the two 'abstract' string quartets have more to do with spoken conversation, gestural behaviour, and ritual festivity than with art music in a concert hall. The main work on this CD - written during the war-years 1916-19 - is also chamber music in that it is scored for tenor and contralto soli, a small ensemble of women's voices, and piano; yet in effect it is a mini-opera, telling a story from everyday life, since Janacek found the verses, reputedly by a peasant youth, in a local newspaper to which he was himself sometimes a contributor. Rumours that the poet was in fact an 'educated' author going slumming have recently been substantiated; but what matters is that Janacek believed in their raw authenticity, and that they enacted his own tussle between Nature and Nurture, since the young farmer, lured by a gypsy as much animal as human, leaves hearth and home for her, albeit racked by guilt. Autobiographical undertones are insiduous, given Janacek's obsessive affair with the relatively young Kamila Stosslova whom the composer, in several letters, explicitly equated with his imagined gypsy siren: though the real Kamila seems to have been a shade stodgy, lacking the gypsy Jefka's oncomingness and Cleopatra-like allure.

Janacek tells the story - usually known in English as Diary of a Young Man who Disappeared - in a sequence of 22 songs, beginning with a group of eight in which the farmer sings of the wild one's stunning impact on him. These songs, as intense as they are brief, are 'moments' in which the vocal lines mirror the gestures of speech and the turmoil of adolescent sexuality in figures that are rudimentarily pentatonic, yet chromatically unstable in their interrelationships; sometimes they panic into rootless whole-tone formulations. The piano part, like Janacek's operatic orchestra, quivers in response to the lad's tremulous heart, while at the same time defining the sounds of the rural world - sighing breezes, rippling brooks, carolling birds, man-made village bands. In the climacteric ninth number the Gypsy appears, in shadowy twilight, with girl-companions whose singing evokes a world irremediably 'other'. This is the most potent instance, outside his mature operas, of Janacek's ability to achieve maximum dramatic and magical effect from minimal means. A short, rhythmically savage piano interlude signals the seduction's consummation, and perhaps the conception of the 'half-caste' child.

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Copyright © Wilfrid Mellers, May 1st 1999