In 1897 the Moravian composer Janácek (who preferred to be thought of as Czech) was approached to write some harmonium pieces for a proposed collection, Slavic Melodies. At that time director of Brno's organ school, Janácek was yet to achieve fame with his opera Jenufa and was noted more for his activity as a folksong collector than as a composer. Yet this request from a fellow music teacher, Josef Vávra, to contribute ‘the most beautiful Slavonic melodies harmonized in an easy style' seems to have been his first spur to compose what became his first important set of solo piano pieces.
Janácek was at that time preoccupied with his ‘discovery' of speech melody, which was to be so crucial to his creation of Jenufa. Possibly this explains his delay in responding to Vávra's request, but a subsequent postcard from Vávra dated 22 October 1900 indicates that Janácek had finally responded with an offer of six pieces he called ‘moods'. Just three of these – then untitled but later named respectively Our evenings, A blown away leaf and The owl has not flown away! – were first published as a set of harmonium pieces in 1901 under the title On an Overgrown Path: Three Short Compositions. Of the remaining three pieces, two were subsequently published in the sixth volume of the series and were later titled The Frýdek Madonna and Good night!, leaving a Più mosso which was not published in Janácek's lifetime. Then in 1908 Janácek was pressed by the critic Jan Branberger to contribute a composition for a series of small-scale works he was then editing for publication. Janácek promised a piano cycle, titled On an Overgrown Path, and subsequently presented Branberger with a set of nine pieces – excluding Our evenings but including all the other previously published numbers (Janácek at this point referring to what was to be A blown-away leaf as a ‘love song'); Janácek suggested those nine pieces might be published as three books of three works each. However there was a series of delays before the first book of the cycle – as performed in this recording – was finally published with some amendments (bringing the number of pieces up to ten) by the Brno firm of A. Píša in 1911. (Of a projected second book in the series, Janácek only completed two pieces and started a third.)
Concise, often abrupt in style and pregnant with atmosphere, these pieces were the first to be written in Janácek's unmistakable style. It is clear from the title of one of the pieces, The Frýdek Madonna, that he was at least partially recalling his childhood in the mountain village of Hukvaldy. As a child he used to go with his family on an annual procession to the nearby ‘miraculous Madonna', whose religious procession is heard approaching and departing in the piano miniature. It has been suggested that other numbers in the collection recall events and places from Janácek's childhood, though some of the pieces and their titles intimate something darker and more disturbing. The final work in the cycle, The owl has not flown away!, makes this dark and pessimistic atmosphere manifest by portraying the bird that portends death. Writing to Branberger in 1908, Janácek himself explained: ‘In the last number the ominous motif of the owl is heard in the intimate song of life. Do you sense weeping in the penultimate piece? The premonition of certain death. During the hot summer nights an angelic being lay in deathly anguish.' In this, his most explicit statement about the music's significance, Janácek was referring to the distressing summer of 1902 when his daughter Olga, in her last stay at Hukvaldy, was wretchedly ill with the fever which would kill her.
Death also haunts Janácek's Piano Sonata 1.X.1905. This was directly inspired by a killing Janácek witnessed during the violence that erupted in Brno on that date. A group of German speakers and their supporters, demonstrating against the proposed establishment of a Czech university there, had clashed with a counter-demonstration by a group of Czechs. Janácek was present and, standing his ground in front of the Besední dum, the city's Czech meeting house, threatened German demonstrators with his walking stick before being taken inside for safety by concerned colleagues; just moments later Austrian troops bayoneted a young Czech joiner, František Pavlík, on the steps of the hall. Janácek was one of about 10,000 Czechs who attended Pavlík's funeral, and himself said a few words over his grave. Within months he composed a three-movement work in time for a première on 21 January the following year. However, during its rehearsal, he seized the final movement and burned it before it could be performed. The performance went ahead with just the first two movements, collectively called From the Street on 1 October 1905, played by Ludmila Tucková. Even then, Janácek appears to have been so dismayed by the result that he eventually threw his manuscript into the Vltava, not realizing that Tucková, recognizing the music's worth, had kept her own copy; she bravely presented him with the music again on the occasion of his 70th birthday in 1924.
The first movement, Presentiment, is laid out as a standard sonata form: its nervy first subject is a poignant descending lyrical theme, which is increasingly overwhelmed by its edgy accompaniment. Just as the accompaniment turns into an obsessive motif, a harmonically more mellow second idea interrupts, as if attempting to soothe the apprehension raised by the first; this second idea, after the exposition's repeat, leads into the increasingly turbulent development section which reaches an impassioned climax before the return of the main exposition themes. By contrast the slow movement, Death, begins in a restrained manner, even sounding a touch optimistic, before becoming agitated and impassioned.
1911, the year Janácek published the first complete book of On an Overgrown Path, was also the year when Ravel published his Valses nobles et sentimentales. Again, this was something of a landmark piano cycle for its composer, though in this instance Ravel already had a well established voice as the author of Pavane pour une infante défunte, the Sonatine, Rapsodie espagnole and Gaspard de la nuit. It was therefore a shock for even (or perhaps particularly) his fervent admirers when they first heard the abrasive, percussive opening waltz, and the often astringent harmonies of even the slower numbers which follow. Ravel recalled that the première was greeted by ‘protestations and boos' from an audience who were kept in the dark as to the identity of the composer. Given the chance to guess the authorship of the performed works, Ravel was only recognized ‘by a slight majority', other proposed candidates being Satie and Kodály.
Ravel's title deliberately alludes to two sets of Schubert waltzes – the Valses sentimentales and Valses nobles – and Ravel went so far as to claim he was imitating Schubert's style. This may seem far-fetched at first blush, but one may hear the inspiration behind such sweet numbers as Ravel's lilting third waltz, surely inspired by the fourth of Schubert's Valses nobles – albeit at one remove, consciously re-written according to Ravel's own sensibility (just a year later he was to pay more explicit homage to past composers in À la manière de Borodine and À la manière de Chabrier). Although the Schubertian influence is often subsumed into something more sardonic and urbane (witness how that third waltz melts into its puckishly wry successor), today we can appreciate more readily than could its first listeners the work's lyricism and sweetness, qualities all the more poignant for their being complemented by more astringent and harmonically tart numbers. Most haunting is the Épilogue where fragments of the various waltzes drift past as if in a dream-like, melancholic haze. Ravel admitted that Valses ‘is one of my most difficult works to interpret', and indeed a pianist, Henriette Faure, recalls how when aged 19 she endured being coached by Ravel in precisely that work: the composer ‘stood next to the piano, and proceeded to torment me in such a way that I haven't forgotten it for half a century, continually stopping me, criticizing the minutest details […] It was exhausting, having to integrate fantasy with strictness, and giving a dreamlike or elegant passage the maximum of rhythm and precision. This torture lasted almost two and a half hours. “Good!” he said at the end, “if you would like me to coach you on the other pieces, could you come to my home?”
Though Ravel had a clear idea how his music should go, he was far from exemplary in his own technique and so was often unable to demonstrate himself exactly what was required at the keyboard. This was certainly not a problem shared by his younger Russian contemporary, Prokofiev – at least in performing his own music. Indeed, Prokofiev wrote virtually all his piano music with his own considerable performing skills in mind. He was only 20 when he started to make an impression outside the St
Petersburg Conservatory, where he was a student, with the première performance of his First Piano Concerto. Mischievous and light-hearted in spirit, the Concerto involves much showy virtuosity with rapid cross-hand leaps and glissandos. Something of that quality appears in the Second Piano Sonata, which Prokofiev started composing just a month after that performance early in 1912; Prokofiev largely completed it during August that year while holidaying with his mother at the Caucasus resort of Kislovodsk. Unlike his much more conventional First Piano Sonata, which sounds like the innocent if slightly bombastic offspring of Rachmaninov and Liszt, the Second Sonata very much sets out to confound its listener's expectations: its seemingly conventional late-Romantic start suddenly seizes up by the eighth bar on a jarring, insistently knocking dissonance, while elsewhere there is much relish by the composer-performer in its abundant ‘devilish' dissonances. This clearly annoyed the critic Leonid Sabaneyev, who having equally hated the First Concerto denounced the Second Sonata as a child of ‘the modern “football” generation – stupid, inane and blockheaded.'
That Prokofiev's Second is far from ‘blockheaded' is evident in the masterful way he demonstrates the relationship between the various apparently incompatible elements within the first movement. And after the infectious ‘motor'-rhythm of his following scherzo, the slow third movement strikes deep emotional chords such as Prokofiev would recall when composing his masterful trilogy of the so-called War Sonatas (Nos 6, 7 and 8) in 1939–44. And as a perfect tonic, the finale is one of Prokofiev's most bubbling and impish inspirations, including what appears to be a tribute to Stravinsky's eponymous anti-hero of the recently composed ballet Petrushka. Prokofiev dedicated this sonata to his closest friend and fellow student, Max Schmidthof. A witty and fashion-loving dandy, Max particularly loved this work, and although Prokofiev had no premonition of his death the Second Sonata gained a further poignancy when Max committed suicide in April 1913. Prokofiev dedicated this work as well as what proved to be perhaps the most formidable of his piano concertos, No 2, to Max's memory.
© Daniel Jaffé, 2011