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Recordings

Hyperion CDA68282
31 May 2019

Nicky Spence and Julius Drake record The Diary of One Who Disappeared

From Hyperion comes a particularly fine account of Leoš Janáček’s song cycle The Diary of One Who Disappeared. Handsome-voiced Nicky Spence is the young peasant who loses his head over an alluring gypsy and is never seen again.

Leoš Janáček: The Diary of One Who Disappeared

Nicky Spence (tenor), Julius Drake (piano), Véclava Housková (mezzo-soprano), Voice Vocal Trio, Victoria Samek (clarinet)

Hyperion CDA68282 [CD]

$16.99  Click to buy

He and pianist Julius Drake are evocative storytellers in this unsettling tale of desire and doom. Janáček himself was in the grip of romantic obsession when he composed the Diary, the first of several works inspired by Kamila Stösslová, whom he met in 1917. Almost forty years younger and married, Stösslová neither fanned nor spurned Janáček’s attentions. As his muse, she inspired characters in his operas Káťa Kabanová, The Cunning Little Vixen and The Makropoulos Affair. Zefka the gypsy was her first artistic incarnation. As per Janáček’s instructions, she was the model for the woman on the front cover of the published score. The text, anonymous poems that appeared in a Brno newspaper, is scored for tenor, mezzo-soprano, piano and a small choir.

Spence, who has performed Janáček on the operatic stage, is eminently at home in the composer’s distinctive vocal writing, with its speech-like cadences and folk music lineage. His delivery is immediate, as if he’s confiding to a sympathetic listener. In an emotionally layered portrayal, his hero falls in love with sweet head tones. His fate is sealed when Zefka proffers to show him “how gypsy people sleep”. At the moment of surrender, Spence, sounding dazed, pares down his voice to a sliver of resigned sadness. Later on, he projects mordant self-hatred as the young man realizes he has fallen for someone he considers his social inferior – the undertone of violence is palpable. Mezzo-soprano Václava Housková avoids crass earthiness, giving the folky lilt of her siren call a youthful guilelessness. The offstage female chorus, recorded with a pronounced reverb, surrounds her with eerie echoes, evoking the almost supernatural role that destiny plays in this work. “Who can escape his fate?”, asks the troubled hero. Drake gives an unequivocal answer in the Intermezzo erotico, with its tattered rhythms and final, plummeting 32nd notes. Like the beautiful Zefka, Drake’s piano playing is ravishing and tenacious, with assertive coloring that leaves the harmonies transparent. Dissonances are forceful without ever sounding ugly. After Spence’s anguished, closing top Cs, there can be no doubt about the protagonist’s unhappy future. This performance was recorded at All Saints’ Church in East Finchley, London. Piano and solo voices are encircled with space, but sound close enough to preserve intimacy.

The second half-hour of the recording is more cheerful. The choir sings the first version of Říkadla (Rhymes), eight nursery rhymes for one to three voices, clarinet and piano. (In the later, definitive version, Janáček more than doubled the number of songs, scoring them for chamber choir and ten instruments.) Drake and clarinetist Victoria Samek accompany the charmingly nonsensical words with a sparkling sense of fun. This time, the reverb around the singing trio is obtrusive, giving them a disembodied quality that jars with the material. Spence and Housková feature again in the last set, twelve selections from Moravian folk poetry in songs. These folk tune arrangements, a mix of wistful ballads, love songs and brisk dances, illuminate the influence of traditional music on Janáček’s idiom. They are also utterly captivating. Housková interprets them with endearing simplicity, like someone sharing native songs learned in childhood. Spence’s approach is a tad more operatic. He shades the words with a feather-light touch, suggesting a sigh on a diminuendo, or an increasing heartbeat on a rising phrase. The recital ends with a foot-tapping duet, a party number called Musicians. For those who feel like singing along, the accompanying booklet contains the original poems in Czech, with English rhyming translations. Texts in Czech and English translations are also included for The Diary of One Who Disappeared and the nursery rhymes.

Jenny Camilleri

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