Nicky Spence and Julius Drake bring Gypsy magic and mystery to Wigmore Hall

‘You noticed a nice passage in my Diary of One Who Disappeared?  You know, it would be like under that fir tree of mine in my forest.  And there’s another nice one!  At the end – Žofka [Zefka] with the child in her arms – and he follows her.  And I always thought about you in that work.  You were that Žofka for me!’

Janáček’s letter of 24th December 1927 to Kamila Stösslová (reproduced in Intimate Letters, ed. John Tyrrell) reveals – like many other letters that the composer wrote to the woman, forty years young, for whom he developed an obsessional love – the extent to which Stösslová, Jewish and dark-skinned, was the composer’s own ‘Gypsy’: an emblem of freedom and passion, and a model not only for the ‘Dark Gypsy’ of The Diary of One Who Disappeared but also for Emilia Marty (The Makropulos Case).

In 1918, Czechoslovakia was ‘born’, a new country, and one which guaranteed equal rights to all its citizens of whom 20,000 were Gypsies, the vast majority of whom lived in what is now Slovakia.  This Gypsy population was viewed as an exotic and erotic symbol of passion and freedom – not so much ‘other’ as a representation of something innate but hidden in the Czech soul.

Janáček composed his dramatic song cycle during 1917-19, revising it the following year, having been captivated by a series of poems by an anonymous author (since identified as Ozef Kalda) which were published in the Brno newspaper, Lidové noviny, to which Janáček also contributed.  From the Pen of a Self-taught Writer tells the tale of a rural lad who, lured by a dark Gypsy girl, surrenders his fate, abandoning his oxen, leaving his village and having a child with his Gypsy lover.

Nicky Spence and Julius Drake, together with mezzo-soprano Václava Housková, won the solo vocal 2020 Gramophone Award for their 2019 Hyperion-label recording of The Diary of One Who Disappeared.  Their performance of the cycle at Wigmore Hall, with mezzo-soprano Jess Dandy, was a powerful evocation of the human longing for and embrace of freedom, love and visionary hope.

Entering in medias res, Spence immediately grasped the listener’s attention with his account of his vision of “a young gipsy girl” with “black locks … her eyes an endless deep”.  The tenor’s delivery of the fluid and flexible vocal line had a naturalness that conveyed the young lad’s nervous, tense excitement and unease.  Responsive to the text, Spence rose agilely to the momentary peaks of melodic fervour while Drake’s closing curving motifs captured the wistful lyricism of the vision which embeds itself in the young man’s consciousness: “her lithe form lived in my mind all day long, all day long.”

The tension did not unwind, though, in the second song as Spence wondered why the Gypsy taunted him with her insistent presence; his hands came together in prayer – “if she would only go” – but stabbing motifs in the piano denied that plea.  The strange softness of the glow-worms in the twilight was conjured by the piano’s haunting ripples, and though Spence ardently begged for Heaven’s protection, the piano seemed to submit to the Gypsy’s hypnotic force in the closing bars.

Spence captured the emotional range between and within the brief songs.  In the fifth song, as the young lad laments, “It’s hard for me to plough, I slept little”, the image of “she” who “did fill my dreams was first urgent, then dreamy.  The muscular force of the ploughing oxen, who pull the protagonist back, was embodied in the piano’s muscular rhythms in song six and in Spence’s vigorous vocalism (and stage movements), but opposed by the romantic innocence of the simple fourth-based melody which floated like the coloured handkerchief glimpsed through the leaves.  Similarly, the tension between duple and triple rhythmic groupings in the seventh song dramatized the tug of a Fate that will not – so Drake’s repeating dotted rhythm told us – be denied.

There was a shift with song eight, in which the dark witch-eyes lured irresistibly, the chromatic scalic motifs forming a potent musical drug.  And, so, Jess Dandy emerged from the figurative woods, her mezzo ample, richly coloured and vivid as she delved into sumptuous, warm depths, and gleamed at the top.  Her Gipsy Prayer was a decisive dramatic moment: and as she “Gently pulled at her bodice for him to see”, the voices of Ellie Neate (soprano), Leila Alexander (soprano) and Catherine Backhouse (mezzo-soprano) hailed from the Wigmore Hall balcony, transfixing the oxen boy and freezing time in an erotic moment.

Turning from the prone Gypsy, Spence’s lyrical ardour was countered by the terrible tenderness of his confession, “sad was my virtue, weeping, sadly meeting” and the plaintive yearning for a lost innocence.  But, Drake’s ‘intermezzo erotic’ was an almost violent memory of that moment of darkness, between the trees, with the dark-eyed gypsy girl.  There was unrest and agitation in the piano’s accusatory trills and in the angry power of Spence’s riposte to the silent oxen in song fifteen, and this agitation built into fierce desire and impassioned haste: “Now I hurry often at the evening to the wood …”.  Spence conveyed maturity and acceptance in the final songs; there was confident snap to the text, and in the twentieth song, ebullience and joy – along with a sparkling mischief in the piano part.

The young lad said his farewells with sadness but also conviction and hope, as the duo created a sense of moving forwards into a future that was not without danger but which would be faced fearlessly – as fearlessly as Spence launched into the high Cs that are the ecstatic close.  Janáček’s score offers stage directions: but though Spence and Drake did not perform in semi-darkness with reddish lighting, they summoned the burning desire that the composer invested in these songs and which he described to Stösslová: ‘And that black Gypsy girl in my Diary of One Who Disappeared – that was especially you even more.  That’s why there’s such emotional heat in these works.  So much heat that if it caught both of us, there’d be just ashes left of us.’

The tenor and pianist were re-joined by Jess Tandy to perform six songs from the arrangements that Janáček gathered in his Moravian Folk Poetry in Songs between 1892 and 1901, around the time he was composing Jenůfa.  There was no less drama here that in The Diary, though it was of a less transfiguring kind, more direct and exuberant – Spence ended ‘Stálost’ with the blowing of a kiss.  The piano’s seemingly spontaneous elaborations of the vocal motifs in ‘Pérečko’ were moving and eloquent, coaxing the young girl to transfer her love from her mother to her beloved.  There was melancholy beauty and direct truthfulness.  Spence drummed up a riot in the concluding ‘Konicky milého’, as Neate, Alexander and Backhouse joined in the Bohemian tavern boisterousness.  The ensemble encore ‘Muzikanti’ was, explained Spence, a celebration of what’s possible, something which “resonates with Wigmore Hall”: musicians making music and then rolling on home.

This concert is available to view in HD video until 17 December 2020.

Claire Seymour

Nicky Spence (tenor), Jess Dandy (mezzo-soprano), Julius Drake (piano), Ellie Neate (soprano), Leila Alexander (soprano), Catherine Backhouse (mezzo-soprano)

Janáček – The Diary of One who Disappeared; Moravian Folk Poetry in Songs (No.16 Stálost, No.19 Pérečko, No.1 Láska, No.17 Komu kytka, No.22 Památky, No.18 Konicky milého)

Wigmore Hall, London (live stream); Monday 16th November 2020

Above: Nicky Spence (tenor) (c) Bertie Watson