Things Lived and Dreamt = JANACEK: Sonata 1.X.1905; SUK: Jaro, Op. 22a: “Longing”; DVORAK: Humoresques, Op. 101: Nos 4, 7, 8; SUK: Things Lived and Dreamt, Op. 30; KAPRALOVA: Preludes of April, Op. 13; SMETANA: Polka No. 2 from Czech Dances – Francine Kay, piano – Analekta AN 2 9004 (1/13/23) (74:09) [Distr. by E1] ****:
Pianist Francine Kay, a faculty member of Princeton University, has arranged a program of Czech music, embracing the ‘modern’ tradition that Smetana initiated and which moves through Dvorak, Suk, and Janacek to Vitezslava Kapralova (1915-1940), who died young, before her extraordinary gifts had fully matured.
Kay opens with the passionate, even tortured, music of Janacek, his Sonata 1.X.1905, also known as “From the Street,” a two-movement work in E-flat Minor that takes its cue from a tragic moment in social history. During a demonstration by Czechs for the establishment of a second Czech university of Brno, a German soldier of occupation bayoneted a local laborer, Frantisek Pavlik, on “the white marble steps of the proposed sanctum of higher learning.” The two movements – Presentiment (Con moto) and The Death (Adagio) – emerge in Janacek’s ardent, modal style, rife with violent, painful accents and emotional convulsions that reflect the composer’s moral revulsion and outrage. The parlando effects derive from the qualities of the Moravian language itself. Janacek intended to destroy the manuscript and demolished a third movement funeral march. But the premiere pianist, Ludmila Tuckova, salvaged the score and presented her copy to the composer in 1924 for Janacek to grant permission for publication.
Kay elicits some raw power in the second movement, derived from a five-note motif that becomes obsessional throughout its development. We recall that Janacek wrote down the last sighs of his own, dying daughter. This music follows an emotional arch of rising grief and anguished outbursts, the pulsations like something from a morbid tale by Poe. The last pages resound with a sense of solemn resignation, all hope extinguished by the toll of the final chord, as individual and national aspirations seem crushed by malign forces.
Josef Suk (1874-1935) increasingly achieves a reputation distinct from his father-in-law, Antonin Dvorak. Suk’s Jaro (Spring) of 1902 celebrates the birth of his son by Dvorak’s daughter Odile. Marked Allegro non troppo, the four-minute piece exudes a liquid ecstasy, much in the mode of a Liszt rapture. The middle section extends the idyll, the harmonies close to Grieg as well as Liszt, the rapturous sensibility quite palpable here in a work that deserves frequent application. The ten-section Things Lived and Dreamt (1909) provides a demanding keyboard suite, in a style reminiscent of both Schumann and Mussorgsky, alternating moods and expressive means. It opens Allegro moderato, staccato intended as coarse or insistent irony. A dance element, maybe a polka, it breaks off in dissonant or plaintive accents. The ensuing Allegro vivo flits in small, rhythmic fragments, a prophet-bird with a broken wing. The No. III, Andante sostenuto, projects an impressionist, dreamy color near modal Debussy but nervously rhythmic at moments. Kay’s upper register sings and warbles in the vibrant color of repeated notes and sweeping arpeggios. “Resolute” is how Suk terms the No. IV, Poco allegretto, a kind of mischievous march that strives for bravura pageantry of a dark sort. The piece ends with a quizzical epilogue.
Immediate contrast occurs in No. V, Adagio, the most extended of the ten pieces. Meant to be played with “calm and deep feeling,” the piece might pass for a meditation by Scriabin, with improvisational episodes and soft, declamatory asides rich in piano texture. The dynamic rises in the manner of a chorale, then it dies away in tender nostalgia or regret. The No. VI, Moderato quasi allegretto, proves a sprightly affair at first, but it assumes a Debussy coloration similar to moments from Suite bergamasque and then dissolves into suave arabesques in the dance impulse that opened the piece. The No. VII wants power to mark its pesante progress Adagio non tanto, a dark, moody work that casts dire, obsessive shadows in modal, chromatic harmonies. The last pages soften the effect but do not raise our spirits. Another shift in temperament occurs at No. VIII, Vivace, with its jazzy irreverence, cross-fertilized by French taste.
The No. IX, marked Poco Andante, no less offers jazz chords and Debussy liquids in its opening page, to be played “whispering and mysterious.” We might hear an allusion to Ravel’s Ondine in the swirly mix, the effect driven by a sense of a bravura etude in runs and glissandos. The last of the set, No. X, Adagio, posits a very slow Adagio meant as a funereal dirge, “Dedicated to the forgotten graves in the Krecovice cemetery.” Its central, delicate section reminisces in more tender figures. The somber tread returns, chromatically harmonized in soft bell tones that fade away.
Vítězslava Kaprálová came from a distinguished family, her mother a voice instructor, and her father a successful pupil of Janacek. By age nine Vítězslava Kaprálová was already composing music, and her Chopin-influenced piano pieces found a complement in her songs, often based on her original poetry. Following acceptance at age 15 into Brno Conservatory and subsequent graduation – the first woman so honored – she moved on to Prague to enlarge her studies, taking a conducting course with Vaclav Talich and composition studies with Dvorak’s pupil Vitezslav Novak. With her emigration to Paris in 1937, she found a sponsors and supporters in composer Bohuslav Martinu and conductor Charles Munch. Although Kaprálová died young, her catalogue includes some fifty works, several of them major efforts in the genre of sonatas and concertos.
The four Preludes d’avril (1937) collectively reveal a composer with her own ideas of modern harmony as affected by impressionist tendencies, as in Roussel and Martinu. Dissonant and bitonal effects blend with energetic, asymmetrical rhythmic units. The first, Allegro ma non troppo, enjoys a fluid, plastic motion, angular and jarring in its melodic flux. The second prelude, Andante, proves mysterious in the manner of a nocturne whose temper becomes ardent, even militantly passionate, at moments. The third prelude, Andante semplice, finds a sense of respite in a parlando line that becomes gently interrupted by a delicate utterance whose last page allows a more dire bass line. The final prelude, Vivo, is a lively, agogically active etude with knots for the performer’s digital acumen. Kay carries this little dynamo off in fine fettle.
The remaining works, by Dvorak and Smetana, fall within the category of traditional, classical Czech piano works. Smetana’s1877 Polka in A Minor from the cycle of Czech Dances, has a sense of flair and national bravura. Of the Dvorak set of three Humoresques from 1894, Op. 101, Kay plays the most famous, that in G-flat Major (No. 7) after a rapturous realization of No. 4 in F Major, Presto andante. Marked Poco lento e grazioso, the G-flat plays briskly and unsentimentally, but with a fine sense of tonal balance, the middle section ardent. Finally, the No. 8 in B-flat Minor, Poco andante, completes this brief excursion into Dvorak’s clever manipulation of the 2/4 metric in assorted, characteristic dances in ternary form.
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