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Janacek: 'Diary of a Young Man who

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Over the remaining nine songs the boy sings desperately to himself, at first trying to stifle guilt, for his agrarian community seems to be patriarchally Christian. As the music grows starker and more sparely aphoristic, it also becomes more distraught, creating music of alarming 'modernity', though its melodic and rhythmic gestures spring from basic human experience, and Janacek adheres to a traditional tonal symbolism, with 'dark' A flat minor and E flat minor associated with death and destiny, A flat major hinting at liberation, and D flat major being, as always, his key of love fulfilled. In the final song fear and trembling are elevated into ecstasy, in E flat major, the upward dominant to basic A flat. The tenor ends on high Cs, 'added sixths' to the E flat major triad: so we emerge, with the boy, from the buffets of personal fate and of impersonal destiny, into the sun, the wind, the rain, and the turning earth which is our temporal home. Dubious though we may be about the gypsy-enthralled lad's ultimate fate, we can have no doubt about Janacek's unswerving belief in life, however uncertain are man's morality, God's goodness and the obliquities and iniquities of fate.

This is a disc on no account to be missed, for Peter Straka is a tenor whose young voice but mature technique are up to the superb music's elusive difficulty, while Dagmar Peckova's gypsy smoulders in inspirational duskiness, and Marian Lapsansky distils man's and Nature's volatilities from this paradoxically sparse but dense piano part. He also gives a powerful performance of the Piano Sonata 1 x 1905, written just before the opera Jenufa that made him an international celebrity. The instrumental; work, like the song-cycle composed around a decade later, was also provoked by a 'slice of life'; or perhaps a slice of death, since the event in question was the murder of a worker-student in a political riot triggered by the failure of the city fathers of Brno to found a Czech University to complement the German one. This political cause, close to Janacek's heart, was again twinned with a personal dimension, the death of his adolescent daughter, fruit of his marriage to a beautiful child-bride who, alas, had already come to represent everything in bourgeois respectability that his creative life was opposed to. The work, though idiomatically original in pianistic terms, is, no less than the piano part of the song cycle, compound of quasi-vocal gestures and of implicitly theatrical movements of arms and hands. The first movement (Presentiment) is in deathly E flat minor, opening with a wavering near-pentatonic cantilena aspiring into cumulatively wilder leaps: which are shattered by a savage descending figure that might be an elemental force of Nature. So the movement pivots on a sonata-dualism, between human and non-human forces, of some ferocity with a tight development that grows scarily minatory, until the recapitulation dissolves in an oddly disembodied coda, shifting between a dominant seventh of C and a final triad of E flat minor. The second movement ('Death') is also in E flat minor, at first a noble but broken, wearily reiterated lament on a pentatonic motif of rising fourth and falling minor third, with a middle section in frantic dotted rhythms, with enharmonic tonal shiftings rather than modulations, rounded off by a da capo of the lament. The coda is again mysteriously enharmonic, ending, however, with a remote, una corda E flat minor triad.

Since Janacek discarded the third and last movement we cannot know whether he intended the lamenting song to be resolved. But if, in the surviving two movements, song is unresolved, neither is it obliterated. It retains its identity and, like Janacek himself, gains in pliancy from the assaults it is submitted to. Current events in the world today remind us that Janacek's compassionate fortitude is more than ever necessary, and probably always will be.

Copyright © Wilfrid Mellers, May 2nd 1999

Supraphon 3378-2931

Peter Straka, tenor; Dagmar Peckova, contralto; Marian Lapsanansky, piano

Janacek: Diary of a Young Man who Disappeared

Duration: 50m


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