Janácek: Piano Works
Lars Vogt, piano
With his tart rhythms and uneasy tonality, Leoš Janáček, a late Romantic Czech composer and early innovator in folk musicology, circles his own little cul-de-sac. Among the first to use Edison’s “portable” phonograph to compile Moravian and Slavic folk songs, few understand how his modal experiments rival Claude Debussy as tonal innovator, and his jittery rhythmic sense has just enough rarefied dander to limit his reach; both Antonín Dvořák and Bedřich Smetana overshadow Janáček as nationalist composers. Opera buffs cherish The Cunning Little Vixen as a staple of the standard repertoire, but what do they know? The novelist Milan Kundera cherished Janáček’s two expansive string quartets, which boast scads of recordings from top ensembles. But pianists steer around much of Janáček’s output, most of which he wrote during the last decade of his life between 1918 and 1928, just as the Hungarians Zoltán Kodály and Béla Bartók began legitimizing his folk music research.
The latest disc from pianist Lars Vogt upends this perfidy, just as most of Vogt’s recordings stray from received expectations. His 1991 EMI Classics debut disc, now unavailable on streaming services, sported a respectable program of Haydn, Brahms, and Schubert. But after a dutiful Grieg/Schumann Concerto disc with conductor Simon Rattle, Vogt shifted to chamber music alongside his solo repertoire, first with cellist Truls Mørk, and then as violinist Christian Tetzlaff’s keyboardist for sonatas and trios. With Tetzlaff, Vogt has released radiant recordings of the Brahms Violin Sonatas and Piano Trios, and the Schumann’s Violin Sonatas, alongside equally elegant and beguiling solo performances, most recently with pristine yet earthy Mozart Sonatas. 2020 brought his Brahms Second Piano Concerto, typically considered too demanding to conduct from the keyboard, and despite undergoing chemotherapy for liver cancer, he conducts the new season of the Orchestre de chambre de Paris. Several recordings of his Mozart concertos, conducting from the keyboard, appear on YouTube, as does a leisurely Schumann Symphony No. 2.
Vogt’s unconventional piano career has intriguing payoffs, most importantly in the curious way he never really seems to play by himself, even when he’s alone at the piano. His engagement with the material transcends technique, or rather subsumes technique into something more like a conversation. His latest release from the Finnish Ondine label, of Janáček’s Sonata and two suites (“On An Overgrown Path,” and “In the Mists”), ranks Vogt as a virtuoso of personal interpretation.
The Sonata has two ominous movements: “Foreboding” starts off with some jerky figures and sudden hesitations, a stop-and-start gesture that recurs throughout. Through Janáček’s charged patterns, Vogt tries out sounds, repeats them, plows forwards, only to land on unfamiliar yet oddly satisfying new material. Janáček’s palette shares a lot with Debussy in terms of wispy upper glissandi and impetuous swirls, but he always returns to a melodic frame, rephrasing each time and repeating again as if in incantation. Many passages resemble orchestral squalls and then return again into thoughtful restatements; he steps around Romantic clichés to flirt with impressionism—colors creating moods—all through their own organic motions. Instead of thematic development, Janáček seems to think out loud, exploring implicative textures as though they yield to their underlying impulses. His quiet moments emerge stronger than any outbursts, his daunting questions emerge into reveries.
In the second movement, “Death” uses related material to pivot off in different directions. It turns wispy very quickly, as if the material has somehow spent itself and turned into smoke; some sections resemble passages from Debussy’s “The Sunken Cathedral,” and the pedal washes make it sound blurred by rain, watery and submerged. The sudden stops and rhythmic rumblings don’t have the same tensile feel as the earlier movement; they echo and stir, it’s a mood of sustained meditation even when jammed up with notes; the silences return with even more insistence.
“In the Mists” has four movements that start off wandering down another mysterious path with odd echoes and twisted melodic turns. Silvery glissandos stir up rainbow streaks; the passagework (which could come off as busyness) all gets put to expressive purpose. Again, many recurring motifs tease the ear, and Vogt makes every repetition sound different, somehow unique; he turns a major chord finale sound surpassingly odd, and abruptly final.
Janáček’s distinctive voice makes quirky references to familiar gestures. The Adagio breaks out in a brief fugato, only to get interrupted; it’s almost as if interruptions take on a defining quality. The Andantino has charming melodic material, as fragile as anything from Maurice Ravel.
The “Overgrown Path” suite has more immediate general appeal; it’s got winding melodies and bitter counterpoint. In both form and motivation, this music bears a poetic resemblance to Robert Schumann’s “Scenes from Childhood,” innocence glimpsed through an adult mind. “They Chattered Like Swallows” unveils distinctive modal passages that yank at the ear, and “In Tears” returns to a delicacy that admires Schubert. This set could get grouped with Ravel or Mompou, which is not to say Janacek sounds “French,” but that his approach invites comparison to their splashes of light and color. Very few pieces by Dvorak or Smetana have the same ineffable draw.
So in the end, this Janacek disc creates an intuitive logic coming from Vogt, who avoids plowing through warhorses. Instead, by championing little-known corners of the piano’s vast repertoire, Vogt sidesteps the classical industry’s canonic deep-freeze. (The key precedent for this recording comes from Czech pianist Rudolf Firkusny, who advocated for a lot of his nation’s music.)
Vogt has mastered the formalist approach through Beethoven and Brahms so thoroughly that his Janáček carries breathtaking risks, as if he’s pulling away from certainty itself. The discovery and revelation here carry an abiding sense of mystery and intrigue, a sense that alternate realities surround us if we listen closely enough. Janacek’s piano writing yields a strange, inexorable beauty that owes less to folk music than the willful impulses that inspire it.
Janáček’s stretching of tonality parallels his tweaks to formality – you don’t listen for structure, recapitulations into the home key and ripe climaxes so much as you hear the thinking process itself, ideas spilling forward to the brink of meaning. And Vogt’s elegiac touch suits this music perfectly: he listens and responds to sounds as he makes them. It’s not so much that Vogt channels Janáček or interprets his notes, but that he finds his way with Janacek’s ideas, figures out how to shape them as he goes, and discovers Janáček listening back.