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

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

Jenny Camilleri

image_description=Hyperion CDA68282
product_title=Leoš Janáček: The Diary of One Who Disappeared
product_by=Nicky Spence (tenor), Julius Drake (piano), Véclava Housková (mezzo-soprano), Voice Vocal Trio, Victoria Samek (clarinet)
product_id=Hyperion CDA68282 [CD]