Classical CD Review: Bravo Leoš Janáček — A Marvelous Serving of his Vocal Music

By Susan Miron

This album led me to choose, for a summer project, to listen to all of the music of Janáček — and it has been a complete delight.

Certain pieces of music can change your life. For me, it was Hyperion’s June release of an all-Janáček CD highlighted by the song cycle “The diary of one who disappeared.” The disc also includes “Moravian folksongs” and “Říkadla.” When I first heard the recording, Janáček was barely on my radar. I owned a disc of his piano music, but I couldn’t remember when I had heard his music last — and I usually attend concerts once or twice a week.  I listened at least two dozen times to the performances of the extraordinary tenor Nicky Spense and the stellar British pianist Julius Drake on this CD, which also features mezzo-soprano Václava Housková and the vocal trio Voice.

“The diary of one who disappeared” has seduced several leading tenors to tackle Czech, which is no easy task. Spense’s voice stuns, and his beautifully pronounced Czech illuminates the music’s emotions nuances startlingly well. Drake has had a long involvement with this piece; he assisted the late Irish poet Seamus Heaney with his translation, which was commissioned for the English National Opera in 1999. Drake’s playing throughout the CD is extremely impressive.

As far as transforming a life, or at least temporarily rerouting it, this album led me to choose, for a summer project, to listen to all of the music of Janáček — and it has been a complete delight. I would never had made this discovery  if I had not heard these luminous performances.

When he was 63 years old, on the cusp of international recognition, Czech composer Leoš Janáček (1854-1928) famously met Kamila Stösslova (née Neumannová 1891–1935), then 25, at a Moravian spa resort near his home in Brno.  The composer arrived in the resort on July 3, 1917; by July 8 he had jotted down a fragment of her speech in his diary and  promptly fell hopelessly in love with her. His extensive correspondence — he penned some 700 letters to Kamila —  began with a brief note on July 24. Both were married; both stayed married, Kamila quite happily.  She had two sons; Janáček had lost both his son Vladimir (age 2 ) and daughter Olga (age 20).  He saw Kamila as a vision of domestic tranquility, a perfect muse —  although in reality she was far from angelic.  The very first work his infatuation inspired was the 22-part dramatic song cycle, “The diary of one who disappeared.”

Kamila’s feelings towards Janáček were more complicated and ambivalent. Nevertheless, Kamila inspired him to create the lead characters of three of his operas; Káťa in Katya Kabanová, the vixen in The Cunning Little Vixen and Emilia Marty in The Makropulous Affair. She also influenced his Glagolitic Mass, Sinfonietta, and the String Quartet No. 2 (subtitled “Intimate Letters” because the piece was inspired by their correspondence). Although Kamila generally remained emotionally aloof — she showed little interest in hearing his music —  she was by his side when he died in 1928. During the final year of his life, he wrote to Kamila almost every day. She corresponded far less often, and distressed him endlessly with her demands — she insisted he burn each letter.  He obeyed, but not until the next missive arrived.

Written in 1919 for tenor, mezzo, three distant female voices, and piano, the song cycle/ dramatic cantata deals with a farmer’s son (sung by Spence) who leaves his family and community to run off with Zefka (Václava Housková), a gypsy who seduced him and with whom he becomes helplessly obsessed, finally abandoning his family and friends to run off with her and their newborn son. Janáček provided unusually elaborate stage and lighting directions in order to encourage dramatic performances. “The diary” is an unorthodox song cycle in terms of its scoring, its structure, and its theatrical demands. Comprising twenty-two numbers in all, Nos 1–8, 12 and 14–22 are sung by the tenor; No 9 is sung by the alto and tenor with three female voices (offstage), No 10 by alto with female voices, and No. 11 by tenor and alto.  The piano, at No. 13,  is given a virtuoso Intermezzo erotico.

Leoš Janáček and Kamila Stösslová in 1927.

The genesis of “The diary” is an extraordinary tale unto itself.  Twenty-three “anonymous” poems entitled “From the Pen of a Self-taught Peasant” appeared in the Brno daily paper, Lidové noviny, on May 14, 1916. (The identity of the poet remained a mystery until the ’90s, when research showed it was Ozef Kalda (1871–1921.)) Janáček read these verses, held onto them, and took them with him on his annual holiday in July 1917. They became the basis for the song cycle. Here is the newspaper introduction to the poems that inspired Janáček to write this unclassifiable masterpiece:

Some time ago, in an East Moravian highland village, J.D., a law-abiding and industrious youth, the sole object of hope for his parents, disappeared from home in a mysterious way. At first an accident or even a crime was suspected and the imagination of the villagers was kindled. Some days later, however, a diary was found in his room, which disclosed the secret. It contained several short poems that eventually provided the key to the mystery. His parents had at first thought that the poems were folk songs and soldiers’ songs that he had copied. But a court investigation later revealed their true content. If only for their moving and sincere atmosphere, they deserve to be saved from the dust and oblivion of court files …

What attracted Janáček were the resonances with his growing love for Stösslová. A decade after their first meeting, he admitted to her that she was the gypsy enchantress with the child in “The diary of one who disappeared.’ Janáček left the royalties of “The Diary” to Kamila in his will.

Janáček was seventy, at the height of his creative powers, when he wrote the eight “Nursery Rhymes” that make up  “Říkadla.”  He wrote Kamila that “they will be fun” and, indeed, they are a complete delight in the lively performances here for one to three voices, clarinet, and piano.

Janáček was always deeply absorbed by folk music. In 1890 Janáček and František Bartoš published their Bouquet of Moravian folksongs.  Their publisher asked Janáček to arrange some of the tunes for piano accompaniment. Over the next few years Janáček produced arrangements of fifty-three songs, eventually published as Moravian folk poetry in songs [Moravská lidová poezie v písních] (1890).  The 12 songs on this disc sung spellbindingly by Spence and Housková, accompanied by the formidable Drake, are among my favorite tracks on this CD.

Susan Miron, a harpist, has been a book reviewer for over 30 years for a large variety of literary publications and newspapers. Her fields of expertise were East and Central European, Irish, and Israeli literature. Susan covers classical music for The Arts Fuse and The Boston Musical Intelligencer.


  1. Helen epstein on July 18, 2019 at 8:10 am

    So wonderful that one cd can open up a world. Nice piece!

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