Janáček: ‘Dobrou noc!’ (‘Good night’) from ‘On an overgrown path’   [3’38”]

Avner Arad, piano

25 Girl in southest Moravian folk costume

She’s got the look: girl in southeast Moravian folk costume Josef Novak)

Leoš Janáček (1854–1928; properly pronounced thus, the stress in the surname falling on the second syllable) was a nationalist composer only 10 and 15 years younger than Grieg and Mussorgsky respectively, although because he lived so long into the twentieth century we’re prone to think of him as belonging to a later generation altogether.  He has actually been called the ‘Moravian Mussorgsky’, a description having some meaning in that both men’s use of folk material was actuated by fascination with speech rhythms and inflections.  “When anyone speaks to me,” Janáček once revealed, “I listen more to the tonal modulations in his voice than to what he is actually saying.  From this I know at once what he is like, what he feels.”  Gradually this preoccupation, dating from his first work in the field around 1880, led him inexorably to the unmistakable manner of his astonishing late flowering.

In the collection (actually, two) he called On an overgrown path, begun, with a few pieces originally written for harmonium, around the turn of the century, Janáček arrived at a musical language somewhere between Grieg’s Lyric pieces and his own austere, primitivistic late style.  The melodic turns of phrase of his native Moravia pervade the writing, which nevertheless remains less than blatantly ‘folky’, Good night! being a good case in point.  This music, rather like a nineteenth century Moravian peasant (I admit this is hearsay), never travels very far and shows no ambition to.  You wouldn’t call it cheery, and there’s an obsessive feel to the harping on the same points and frequent retracing of steps.  The piece works the same two elements throughout, without a contrasting middle section.  One is the four-note motif introduced almost at the start and repeating throughout, ever rising then falling between the same two points (or nearly so – with these pieces the subtlety is so often in the detail).  The other is the heartfelt song that gets going at 0’28” (though we  feel it’s been there all along), bringing the piece to a climax of some intensity during the second of its three or so  minutes before returning it to the initial trembling. Troubled music, it would seem (“perhaps you’ll hear parting in it,” the composer wrote to a colleague), but eloquently beautiful withal.

Beautiful, and also deceptively rich, if the startling variety of interpretations thrown up by a Spotify search on “janacek good night” is anything to go by.  You’ll encounter everything from the near-static to the frenzied – within the same performance in the case of the extraordinary one by Joseph Pálenácek – in versions including ones of historic interest played on Janáček’s own piano and on harmonium (this being one of the pieces conceived for that wheezy instrument).  As to variety, count the ways the simple, rhythmically neutral (thus ambiguous) four-note figure alone is capable of being inflected.

Although I’ve been aware of this work for ever, and have possessed the classic DGG Firkušný version for years, I admit to having always missed in it the Janáček I love so well, composer of the late-period Sinfonietta, From the house of the dead (opera after Dostoevsky) and stupendous orchestral Taras Bulba.  Turns out I’d simply never listened closely enough.  Retreading the overgrown path for this playlist, I find myself moved by the strange thing it is rather than lamenting what it doesn’t attempt to be.  The version I’ve gone for comes from 1999 when the Israeli-born Firkušný pupil (and thus, amazingly enough, Janáček “grand-pupil”) Avner Arad was only 20.

On the subject of Janáček’s uses of Moravian folk idioms, I would urge anyone to give a hearing to a CD by the wonderful, multi-talented Iva Bittová with the scarcely less cherishable Škampa Quartet, whose three male members of the time also sing when called upon.  The 53 items the composer collected and published between 1892 and 1901 as (in my favoured translation) A bunch of Moravian folk songs have had their piano accompaniments arranged with some panache (take a bow, Vlado Godar) for string quartet.  The result is pretty irresistible – you’ve got to love things like the Gnats wedding, Track 6, and Sweet apple, Track 12.  Although you could never be sure with Janáček – he was an odd stick – he would surely have loved them too.  (Another of Bittova’s Janáček projects, incidentally, includes not one but two versions of the very piece we’ve been listening to here.)

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