Out of the Mists: Adès Illuminates Janáček’s Late Piano Works

14/12/2018

Jánaček: Thomas Adès (Piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 9.12.2018. (CSa)

Thomas Adès (c) Brian Voce

Janáček – On an Overgrown Path (Book I); Na památku; Piano Sonata 1.X.1905 ‘From the Street’; On an Overgrown Path (Book II); Narodil se Kristus Pán; Malostranský palác; Vzpomínka; In the Mists

Still only 47 years old, Thomas Adès is an internationally renowned composer of opera and orchestral works, a fine conductor and an accomplished concert pianist. Less well known is the fact that he is also something of an expert on the mature Jánaček’s infrequently played piano works. There are in Adès compositions, echoes of Jànaček’s highly dramatic harmonic modulations and vitality, so one can understand his desire to promote the great Czech composer’s piano repertoire. Late in life, Jánaček received timely recognition for his operatic works, such as Jenůfa, Káťa Kabanová, and The Makropulos Case, but his more intimate piano and chamber works went unnoticed. These wordless compositions, unmistakably rooted in the exotic folk songs and dances of his native Moravia, also reflect his fascination with the musicality of regional speech patterns. In his ethnomusicological wanderings, Jánaček would frequently note down not just the sounds of birds and forest animals to incorporate into his music, but he would also record the rhythms of speech of local villagers. They were, wrote Jánaček, ‘as soft as cutting butter.’

In a published study entitled ‘Nothing but Pranks and Puns’ Adès points to the volatility of texture and economy of material and the relationship between harmonic colour and tonality which makes these late pieces more highly charged than in any other composer. Last Sunday night in a revelatory Wigmore Hall recital, Adès artfully captured their emotional intensity as well as their transient delicacy.

The first part of the programme featured Along an Overgrown Path Book I V111/17, a series of ephemeral miniatures with evocatively rustic titles such as ‘Our Evenings’, ‘A leaf blown away’, ‘Unutterable Anguish’ – a sweet elegy to Jánaček’s dead daughter Olga, and ‘The barn-owl hasn’t flown away’. These short autobiographical pieces featured the harsh, reiterative phrases and motifs which characterise many of Jánaček’s works, played here with great empathy and insight.

An early piece, Na památku (In Memoriam) V111 preceded the Piano Sonata entitled 1.X.1905, ‘From the Street’ – written to commemorate the death of Czech student František Pavlik at a political rally in Brno. Adès managed to convey the undercurrent of political unrest and the restlessness of the repeated melody which hovers over it.

Along an Overgrown Path Book II formed part of the second half of this perfectly pitched recital, which concluded with V mlhāc, In the Mists, a Debussy-like and introspective set of four pieces evoking Jánaček’s childhood. This is an impressionistic work in three untitled movements. At times, it felt as if an impenetrable mist actually swirled around the piano, threatening to obscure the piece’s overall structure. In the hands of less disciplined player, we could easily have become lost, but Adès, combining rigour with sensitivity, provided us with an illuminated path through Jànaček’s mysterious and subtly lit sound world.

Chris Sallon

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