[14 March 2012]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Czech composer Leoš Janáček, like many of his contemporaries, was a preservationist. He worked to document the folk songs of Bohemian and Moravian culture, sometimes tabling more serious works in favor of posterity. As time went on, the forms he was working to sustain began to synthesize with his own. The painful realities of rearing, then saying goodbye to, children seeped into nursery rhymes. His admiration for fellow countryman Antonín Dvořák gave way to an unusually powerful set of choruses. Classical label Harmonia Mundi, always in touch with the more obscure but no less wonderful nuggets of music history, is now on a mission to preserve these works of Janáček. Cappella Amsterdam work in conjunction with conductor Daniel Reuss to bring these choral masterpieces to the modern listener with Leoš Janáček: Choral Works.
First comes the “Six Moravian Choruses,” representing a passing of the baton from Dvořák to Janáček. Dvořák had already done the dirty work here by originally penning these themes as duets. Janáček then extrapolates them into full blown choruses, really putting the room microphones to the test with such dynamic range. The only accompaniment may be a piano, but they can really pack the fortissimos, as on the shape-shifting third movement. In only 11 minutes, Leoš Janáček: Choral Works has already gotten off to a great start.
The next 11 minutes are devoted to texts from German composer Johann Kuhnau in the form of two extended works: “The Wild Duck” and “The Wolf’s Trail”. The first selection is languid and low key, but “Wolf’s” harmonically skewed piano introduction wastes no time telling us which style, Baroque or Romantic, is boss here. The tenor sounds like he’s the one being hunted. After that comes one of Janáček’s most noteworthy works, “Elegy on the Death of My Daughter Olga”. By all accounts Janáček and his wife felt destroyed when their highly talented but ill daughter’s fragile health finally collapsed. The tragedy also proved to be the final nail in the coffin of their excuse for a marriage. Though they stayed legally married, they existed as far apart as two human beings can. How anyone can summon strength to complete such a fully realized work after going through that is bewildering. Nevertheless, “Elegy on the Death of My Daughter Olga” is full of colorful swirls, courtesy of Cappella Amsterdam’s perfect blending of voices.
Tracks 10 through 28 are adaptations of the nursery rhymes of Michel Lambert. The piano is joined by just a handful of wind instruments. This is where things get a little weird on Janáček’s end. There is just a bit of absurdity to titles like “The Beetroot Got Married”, “Grumpy German Broke the Pots”, and “Granny’s Crawled into the Elder Bushes”, and Janáček seems content to run with it. Melodies don’t flow with a lilt; they get jerked around at the mercy of his pen, challenging the vocalists’ abilities and the listener’s tolerance. After all, aren’t nursery rhymes supposed to have an accessible melody that a child can latch on to? That they can hum later on? No way. Not at this moment, at any rate.
Leoš Janáček: Choral Works wraps up with three powerhouse numbers, arguably the highlights of the collection. “Our Evenings” doesn’t even feature the choir (performed on what sounds like a bandoneón), but that’s compensated for by the men’s voices in “Ave Maria”. “Our Father” gets the final word in 16-minute splendor, celebrating the marriage of Eastern and Central European themes, texts of the distant past, and contemporary composition. It’s a microcosm of the album as a whole. Old, new, and borrowed, Leoš Janáček: Choral Works will last forever.