The third ECM New Series release by András Schiff is his long-awaited recital recording of the piano music of Leos Janácek (1854-1928). He has been playing this music, to spell-binding effect, for many years. The Budapest-born pianist has long been interested in parallels between Janácek and Béla Bartok, and by the way in which Janácek drew upon Moravian folk roots, much as Bartók drew upon Hungarian, Romanian, Slovak and Transylvanian music. Each of these composers contributed to the national culture of his homeland by making evident what was already there, as well as by channelling it for differentiated artistic purpose. "These are healthy roots," Schiff told German arts magazine Ibykus, "from which one can take sustenance, and build upon."
Robert Cowan, writing in the CD booklet for the present release, also emphasises the life-affirming qualities of Janácek's piano music: "No matter how many times you listen to these gems, the sum effect of emotional engagement, wonderment and love of life is as lasting as one's admiration for the music's miniaturist construction. They are truly "the world in a grain of sand". Trawling the repertory for piano masterpieces from roughly the same period, only Bartók's gnomic "ethno-narratives" (Out of Doors, Bagatelles, selected pieces from Mikrokosmos, etc) can claim anything like equal musical status. Janácek's piano music anticipates the compressed keyboard tone poetry of such feted modern masters as György Kurtág and Arvo Pärt. They are, for the most part, honest fragments of personal biography, utterly uncompromising and securely grounded in the land of their birth. There is nothing contrived about them, absolutely no empty striving for effect, and yet their force of utterance is formidable. They confirm the mastery of a creative force who was, by turns, afflicted or infatuated by life." And definitively Czech: "His was an unlikely voice to represent a cultural identity for Czechoslovakia", the BBC Music Magazine remarked recently, "but it was an unlikely nation. The accent of Janácek's music is peculiar, the distinctive sound is somewhere deep in the provinces of the provinces..."
"In The Mist" (1912) is amongst Janácek's more enigmatic piano works. In a time of emotional crisis, the composer attempts to clarify confused memories and to confront self-doubt. "In The Mist" was composed when Janácek, already almost 60, was trying to come to terms with his apparent failure as a writer of opera, which he regarded as his true calling. (Fame came to Janácek very late, and there was a great upturn in his fortunes after 1920).
"1.X.1905" was written to honour a Czech workman, Frantisek Pavlik, shot during an anti-German demonstration in Brno. Only two movements of this piano sonata now remain but, as Cowan notes, "it still has the power to shock. As with Schubert's Eighth and Bruckner's Ninth Symphonies, its impact seems somehow to have been strengthened by the absence of a finale. The remaining torso stands powerfully on its own terms."
Schiff also plays the complete "On an Overgrown Path" cycle. The pieces of Book I were brought together in 1908; several were conceived originally for harmonium as early 1901/2, while Janácek was also working on the "Jenufa" opera. Moravian folk melodies influence several of the pieces and their titles are also derived in part from Moravian folk poetry. The last three of the Book I compositions allude to the illness and death - at the age of only 21 - of Janácek's daughter, Olga. The tone of the work as a whole is complex: "Janácek's ability to switch mood - sometimes within a mere two or three bars of music - from hopelessness to reconciliation, from rage to despair or affirmation, is unique. One marvels at the music's inherent spontaneity while at the same time admiring the skill of the design."
The album concludes with the tiny "A Recollection", written in 1928, a miniature to rival any of Webern's in its jewelled brilliance.
Liner notes for the present CD also include an open letter to András Schiff by Hungarian writer Imre Kertesz, distinguished author of "Fateless" and "Kaddish for a Child Not Born", works for he received the "Welt" Literature Prize last autumn.
András Schiff was born in Budapest, Hungary in 1953. He began piano lessons at age five with Elisabeth Vadász and continued his musical studies at the Ferenc Liszt Academy with Professor Pál Kadosa, György Kurtág and Ferenc Rados. He also worked with George Malcolm in London.
Today, Schiff occupies a prominent position among the world's leading musicians. Each season, he collaborates with the major orchestras of Europe, North America, Japan and Israel, and appears regularly at the festivals of Salzburg, Vienna, Lucerne, Ansbach and Feldkirch. Recitals and special projects take him to all of the international music capitals and include cycles of the major keyboard works of Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert and Bartók. Schiff also founded his own ensemble, the Cappella Andrea Barca, to perform all of Mozart's Piano concertos at the Mozartwoche of the Internationale Stiftung Mozarteum in Salzburg; this project will run until 2005. Over the next few seasons, the focus of Schiff's orchestral activities will be conducting programs of Bach, Beethoven and Mozart from the keyboard.
From 1989 to 1998, András Schiff was founder and artistic director of "Musiktage Mondsee," an annual chamber music festival which takes place for one week each summer near Salzburg. He is presently joint artistic director of the Festival of Ittingen, Switzerland, a chamber music festival he founded with Heinz Holliger in 1995, and a series at the Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza.
András Schiff has established a prolific discography, including recordings for ECM New Series, Teldec and London/Decca. His many awards and prizes have included the Bartók Prize in 1991 and the "Claudio Arrau Memorial Medal" from the Robert Schumann Society in Dusseldorf in 1994. In March 1996 András Schiff was awarded the highest Hungarian distinction, the "Kossuth Prize" and in May 1997, he received the "Leonie Sonnings Music Prize" in Copenhagen.
His previous ECM releases are "Music for Two Pianos" (with Peter Serkin, performances of music by Mozart, Reger and Busoni) and the Schubert Fantasies D 760 and D 934 (with Yukio Shiokawa).
CD package includes 32- page 3-language booklet with liner notes by Imre Kertesz and Robert Cowan