September 3, 2005

Czech Forests and Streams

Janáček and Jolivet with the RSB


André Jolivet
Cello Concerto No. 2
Leoš Janáček


Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin
Tschechischer Philharmonischer Chor Brno
Marek Janowski - Conductor

Wolfgang Emanuel Schmidt - Violoncello
Eva Urbanová - Soprano
Peter Straka - Tenor
Ivan Kusnjer - Baritone
Ladislav Elgr - Tenor

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Czech Forests and Streams

Janáček and Jolivet with the RSB

by Nancy Chapple

This year's Musikfest presented orchestras from Prague, London and New York, as well as good old Berlin. The Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin, resident in the Konzerthaus, performed a rare work from a Czech composer who is consistently interesting to modern ears: Leoš Janáček's early opera Šárka. The work has been staged and recorded only sporadically since its premiere in 1925, and this was its Berlin premiere.

Wolfgang Emanuel Schmidt

The organizers must have wondered what could constitute the other half of the program: André Jolivet's 2nd Cello Concerto was chosen. The choice was unsatisfactory, because there was no apparent connection - or even blatant contrast - between the works. The blame did not lie with the soloist, Wolfgang Emanuel Schmidt, who did his very best with a complex score full of virtuoso passages. Schmidt is "solo cellist in the orchestra" - he greeted the musicians with a little wave when he came on stage. Three layers of string sound were created: solo cello from the pedestal, a prominently placed string quintet backing up the soloist, echoing and supporting the cello's phrases, and a string orchestra. The components were complementary and sometimes difficult to distinguish. Pizzicato created an impression of intense movement. In the long solo cadenza, we noted Schmidt's - and Jolivet's - ability to connect up disparate elements. But the work's form and intention remained unclear throughout: why these sounds in this order?

To ensure Šárka did not resemble a lifeless oratorio, the singers were not seated at the front of the stage, but rather wended their way between the celli and violas or the first and second violins after the music had begun - an interesting choreography, made more difficult by not optimally arranging the music stands on the stage beforehand.

It is often stressed that Janáček's music is inseparable from the Czech language in which he composed it. It was only fitting that the Czech Philharmonic Chorus from Brno and Czech soloists were imported to sing and declaim one of Prague's founding myths - a tale of pride and loyalty, love and deceit, complete with female warriors, dark caves and magic weapons.

Janáček was fascinated by Šárka's psychic instability: both seductress and leader, love and hate residing at close quarters in her soul. Unfortunately, this meant that he neglected the other voices and the dramatic action as a whole. But Janáček's music is fascinating: The harmonic context is in flux through constant modulations. One melody slides into the next, with seamless transitions provided by transformations in the accompaniments through tiny variations in repeated small fragments. Moods change rapidly and the action shifts accordingly. This may explain why it is difficult to stage the opera: indignation follows on the footsteps of love, the chorus passages are short and colorful, mere bridges to the next solo entrance. Janáček could be considered a poet of wind, water and forest - the most impressive passages seemed to illustrate dark Czech forests and tumbling streams. Tremoli and warm vibrati in the strings heat up the overall sound. The sound describes reflections of the sun on water - in constant motion. It is not possible to trace the moment when the color changes - but at some point the nuance is different.

Eva Urbanová

The dramatic tenor role of Ctirad, sung by Peter Straka, sounded pinched in the higher registers. The solid accomplishment of the other male singers was overshadowed by the tremendously dramatic Eva Urbanová in the title role - a mesmerising and powerful voice with the presence of an opera star. The women's choir was particularly impressive, the men somewhat bland in contrast.

Janáček's music made the whole evening worth it, more than hesitant attempts at staging or the heroine's melodramatic story, her troop of female warriors and vacillation between dedication and defiant resistance. We follow the offbeat pulses, the frequent switches from major to minor, the sequences that take us somewhere new - intrigued, almost overwhelmed by the richness of the composer's ideas. The texture is so continuous that it is difficult to single out individual instrumentalists - but the oboe accompaniment to the phrase "sei gründig", the ominous deep tuba voice supporting "wenn ich in diesem Glück sterben dürfte!" hinted at the underlying psychological unease in Janáček's setting of the historic myth.

The audience enjoyed the evening, calling the singers back to the stage many times.