Commander, Assistant Conductor
From the Street, 1.X.1905
On October 1, 1905, Czech worker Frantisek Pavlik was killed during a demonstration. Leos Janacek was so affected by the incident that he hurriedly wrote his one and only piano sonata. But as the well-known story goes, he burnt the third movement before anyone could play it, and threw the first two movements into the Vltava after the first private performance. Fortunately, the pianist copied the score, so now everyone can hear this undoubted and unqualified masterpiece. Here is a piece that is so inherently emotional that merely playing the notes will never suffice; here is a piece that truly adheres to Mahler’s idea that the score contains everything but that which is most important. While there are a number of recordings, even the least recorded Beethoven sonata is more recorded. But at least there are choices. And some of them are great. Much as I did with Carnaval recently, I decided to sit through all of my versions of this piece, but since I only have a half-dozen, it was a much shorter affair.
Again, I’ll start with the earliest one. Rudolf Firkusny recorded the piece in 1971, and his is often cited as the best version available, and among the most definitive. The fact that Firkusny briefly studied with Janacek and has Janacek’s own markings on some scores certainly lends credence to claims of authenticity. Ultimately, however, it is only the playing that matters, and here Firkusny is nearly unrivalled. The tone throughout Firkusny’s reading is one of anger, nearing uncontrolled rage at points, and it can drain the listener. The opening is urgent and fast, with remarkably clean and precise fingerwork. The movement builds in tension from note one. Near the end there is an exhausted reprieve of sorts before the coldly desolate conclusion arrives. One is angry yet tired, filled with a distanced disgust at those now ancient events. The second movement – Death – continues that desolate feeling at the outset. But as the elegiac movement approaches the climax of the middle section, Firkusny builds up a massive, discordant wall of sound out of a cacophony of crashing forte chords. He lets up to revisit the main theme in a somber yet angry mood so as to keep the feeling appropriate. As the end nears, he manages to create a sense beleaguered acceptance and a morose sense of loss. The closing chord is sustained perfectly – it lingers just long enough to allow one to rethink all that has happened. It allows the piece to put an end to the whole episode. But it never erases the seething anger so apparent throughout. What could that third movement have held that could be better than what comprises the piece today? This recording is a towering achievement.
But it’s not the only one. The second recording in my collection, from 1972, is played by another Czech pianist, Josef Palenicek, and it shows that another approach can be just as valid and powerful. Palenicek’s approach is one of darkness, brooding, and confusion. Indeed, the first movement opens with a decidedly darker tone, but it soon moves into stark contrasts and swings that typify this performance. The quick, darting staccato playing evokes an uncertain emotional reaction. The cascade of notes at around fifty seconds undulates wildly, further hinting at an uncertain, confused emotional response; it is as though the witness to the horrible event is in a daze and everything – sights, sounds, emotions – are swirling uncontrollably. This particular device and effect appears a few times, and each time it is simultaneously a bit more unsettling and a bit more decipherable. When the final, emotive outburst of the first movement arrives, it is a mass of confusion, rage, and profound sorrow. Then the movement ends in a probing mood, permeated by sorrow. The confused, searching tone prevails throughout the second movement. Palenicek takes great liberties with this movement. The movement lasts between just over six minutes and almost ten minutes in the other versions, but here it lasts a scant 4’48”. The speed lends to a sense of confusion: all has happened too quickly. The protagonist (Janacek, perhaps? Palenicek? Any concerned person?) does not know how to react. As the middle section climax arrives, it is with a palpable sense of barely controlled rage. But when the rage subsides there is a hint of resignation. The entire ordeal is too much. One must slink off and nurse one’s own anguish. There is no notable buildup to the final chord, it just arrives and is played. More is left unanswered than answered. Another great performance, to be sure.
After the profound, draining experience of the first two recordings, those that follow were more or less doomed to fall short. The next recording certainly does: Benedikt Koehlen’s 1988 recording on Col legno just can never recreate the emotional world that the two Czech pianists so vividly paint. His is an over-analyzed reading. The entire recording is odd, and the pianist seems more intent on underscoring novel devices than on getting to the heart of the music. For instance, he’ll often mix sound levels, the left hand being played a very purposive mezzo-forte while the right is pounding out forte chords. He’ll explode during a climax, but it’s all for show, and there is little feeling. He’ll play quietly, but there is no sense of loss or contemplation. When the first movement ends, it is abrupt and devoid of meaning. The second movement is just plain odd. Koehlen extends the movement to 9’49” and in the process destroys much of the feeling of the piece: it loses all coherence and the thematic material is washed away. He plays each section extremely slowly and allows himself overly-indulgent pauses between sections. In his highly technical liner notes, Koehlen complains that the pulse of the movement is halting and difficult to find, yet both Firkusny and Palenicek find it. To his credit, he does produce some wonderful sounds from time to time, and the climax of the middle section is a satisfyingly tumultuous one. There is something haunting about the approach, but it is only variably effective. To an extent, his playing reminds me of Pogorelich (especially when playing Brahms) in the way he extends and transforms the piece, but unlike Pogo, he cannot sustain the material and bring life to all the little details. Koehlen’s is an odd, tiresome affair. I keep the disc for the accompanying Hartmann piece.
The next recording is more successful, but not a whole lot more. Mikhail Rudy’s 1990 recording is largely an austere, cold affair informed by an overriding sense of detached melancholy and little else. He certainly has no technical issues to contend with. He can build the thundering climaxes with technical perfection, and he can play the softer passages with a delicate but overly mannered touch, and he can certainly elicit some beautiful sounds, but it is all rather unemotional. He’s not especially eccentric, a few unusually elongated pauses in the second movement aside, but a clinical approach does not suit the music.
There is no such problem with Andras Schiff’s 2000 recording. His is the only other version in my survey to even remotely approach the accomplishments of Firkusny and Palenicek. Schiff starts the piece softly and gracefully, and from there he ratchets up the tension and power, combining a supremely sensitive touch and restrained virtuosity to elicit a different sound world and emotional reality. (Just one example is at about 2’07” into the first movement where he manages a dramatic increase in volume flawlessly.) He lacks the rage and confusion of the two Czechs, but he brings a stately indignation to the proceedings; he is disgusted and distraught, but sees less reason to be so overtly emotional. The main climax of the first movement is suitably powerful, Schiff never revealing his true strength and virtuosity until just when it’s needed. The first movement gently fades out, leading to a contemplative, humane opening to the second movement. Schiff’s second movement is the second slowest in the survey, but he never loses the line or musical impetus. Quite the contrary: his is a lesson in how to make one section lead inexorably to the next and to show the emotional development of the piece. The final eruption is powerful and moving, and then Schiff returns to a beautiful, contemplative approach as the piece ends. His is certainly the best, warmest sounding recording of the bunch, and it is the best modern version I’ve heard.
That leads me to my final version: Ivan Moravec’s recording, also from 2000. Moravec is one of my favorite pianists, and his disc of Czech music is superb, so this ought to be near the top, right? Not quite. His controlled, precise opening is good enough, but after the opening passage is complete, there follow some overly fast staccato chords that reappear a few times throughout. It’s a little mannerism that detracts a bit from the work. The first outburst and return of the main theme is handled quite nicely, and the build up to and delivery of the second outburst is quite good. Each forte outburst is more propulsive and angrier than the last – a mannerism, to be sure, but an effective one. The main climax is overpowering, but shortly thereafter that annoying staccato returns to ruin the effect. The second movement opens rather coldly, and it stays cold. This is a lament, a dirge for a fallen soul, and Moravec plays it in a funereal manner. A couple times, Moravec emphasizes a single, terse note, and it grates a bit. The central section climax is fearsome, and now it becomes clear why he had used staccato the way he did, and why those short single notes were there; he mixes the main theme, the emotional heat, and the little devices in an altered guise to evoke a confused, angry emotional response. The piece ends with the final chord fading into oblivion. The performance is very good, but it is a bit contrived and ultimately lacking in emotional appeal to be among the best.
So, of the six versions I own, the first two recordings made are the best. Among more recent recordings, only Andras Schiff can approach Firksuny and Palenicek, and then only because he takes an entirely different approach. What is clear is that Janacek’s sonata is not a virtuoso show piece. No, it is an emotional piece where the pianist must focus on elements that can never be properly notated. It must move the listener. It must evoke some mix of anger, sorrow, and regret. It must be played as a decidedly human piece. Why did Janacek burn the third movement? Was it too much for anyone to bear? I, for one, would give my (father in-law’s) left nut to hear it. But since I can never hear it, I will remain content with one of the most powerful pieces in the piano repertoire as is. It is a masterpiece.