This Wigmore Hall lunchtime performance confirms Nicky Spence as a prime Janáček interpreter

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Janáček: Nicky Spence (tenor), Jess Dandy (mezzo), Julius Drake (piano), with Ellie Neate, Leila Alexander (sopranos) and Catherine Backhouse (mezzo). Wigmore Hall, London, 16.11.2020, livestreamed from Wigmore Hall website (and available until 17.12.2020). (CC)

Janáček’s Muzikanti encore

Janáček – The Diary of One who Disappeared: Moravian Folk Poetry in Songs: No.16, Stálost (Constancy); No.19, Pérecko (The Posy); No.1, Láska (Love); No.17, Komu kytla (Who is it for?); No.22, Památky (Memories); No.18, Konicky milého (My sweetheart’s horses); No.50 Muzikanti (Encore: Musicians)

First performed in Brno 1921, the first performance of The Diary of One who Diisappeared took place the very next year at Wigmore Hall. This particular performance was by Nicky Spence, who won a Gramophone Award for his recording on Hyperion. That he is a prime interpreter is confirmed by this Wigmore Hall lunchtime performance.

There was a pronounced dramatic element to the Diary of One who Disappeared: it began with piano alone onstage, Nicky Spence entering after the music starts from the artist’s door, immediately stamping his interpretation with perfect Czech and a tremendous high register. Spence has a plaintive, clarion voice that particularly suited the third song, heard against a beautiful, consonant piano background; similarly, the Nature evocation of the fourth was perfectly done, Drake invoking the swallows of the text.

Haunting and somehow speaking perfect truth, it seemed as if all life was here. The angst of the broken plough of the seventh song, the sheer tenderness of the eighth. Welcome, too, the mezzo-soprano Jess Dandy, her plea to God as to why he created the Gypsy race perfectly pitched emotionally. From Spence’s majestic invocation of Nature in the forest to the unforgettable inky blackness and superb, dry staccatos of Drake’s Interlude and the light airiness he brought to the song about gathering strawberries (No.17), this was all of a performance, fully enhanced by the contributions of Ellie Neate, Leila Alexander (sopranos) and Catherine Backhouse (mezzo) on the balcony.

The excerpts from the Moravian Folk Poetry in Music were, as one might expect, splendidly folkloric in demeanour, the perfect contrast to Diary; and here, everyone got to join in. But there was plenty of contrast there, too, Spence’s line splendidly plangent in ‘Láska”’ and the gorgeously glowing, hymnic harmonies of ‘Panátky’ heart-stopping. A drum and tambourine added spice; all tremendous fun, leading to one encore, the famous ‘Musikanti’.

Fun fact – if you stream from the Wigmore Hall website and leave subtitles on, it clearly looks for English words it can recognise, even though the language is Czech. It came up with a single ‘awesome’ at one point (translation service as critic?) and, rather more randomly, ‘Tarzan’. Go figure.

Colin Clarke

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