MUSIC / Czeched in for the weekend

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The Independent Culture
IT HAS become a fixture of the London arts calendar that every January the BBC girds up its withered Reithian loins in memory of the public educator it once was and takes over the Barbican for a weekend crash-course on some major figure of new music. Past subjects have included Henze, Berio and Stockhausen, all potently alive (that dread epithet which, paradoxically, means death at the box office); and last year it was Alban Berg, who is dead but difficult enough to count as Honorary Living to the ears of many listeners.

This year, though, the weekend went to Janacek, who might seem a comparatively soft option. Born in 1854, he pre-dates Puccini; and dying in 1928, he can't be said to have seen much of the 20th century. Nor can he be mourned as a neglected genius. To have featured in recent months at Glyndebourne (Jenufa), on the Glyndebourne Tour (Kat'a Kabanova) and at ENO (Mr Broucek), with a Jenufa and Cunning Little Vixen coming up later this year at Covent Garden, is hardly neglect. Janacek has suddenly been seized on by directors as the natural raw material of modern opera theatre - much as Mahler was some years ago by concert conductors - and his four or five main stage works now have repertory status.

But the key word, there, is 'suddenly'. Until Charles Mackerras introduced Kat'a Kabanova to Sadler's Wells in the 1950s, no one in Britain beyond a small group of Slavophiles knew anything of Janacek. He did visit Britain in 1926 for a tribute concert at the Wigmore Hall (the programme was reproduced as one of the events in the Barbican weekend). But as his visit coincided with the General Strike it passed unnoticed, as did the concert (which few people could get to) and he never came again. It really is only in the last decade or so that Janacek fever has burned so passionately (sometimes, indiscriminately) throughout the world; and an event like the Barbican's is if nothing else a chance to take stock of what this phenomenon amounts to.

The first thing to say is that, birth certificate aside, Janacek is a 20th-century animal. This is partly a matter of chronology - he was a late developer whose work was focused on the last years of his life (the greatest scores were all written when he was in his sixties and seventies) - but also a result of the experimental individuality that sprang from a life spent in the provincial obscurity of Moravia, removed from mainstream European cultural exchange. Time and again these Barbican programmes recalled that if you look for conventional developmental structures in Janacek you'll be disappointed. His music works on the juxtaposition of contrasted ideas, held together by an underpinning of repeated cellular motifs. It can sound primitive, raw, 'unfinished'; and a generation ago it had a Mussorgskian effect on well-meaning musicians who rushed to tidy up the scores, Straussifying their often thin and exposed textures, smoothing over the cracks and holes, in the name of improvement.

A prime example is the final opera, From the House of the Dead, which was the Janacek weekend's centrepiece, done in concert by the BBC SO under Andrew Davis, with a cast forcefully led by Jan Blinkhof, Kim Begley and Russell Smythe. Janacek left the score in chaos, written on blank paper with fragmented stave lines drawn by hand. It was thought, after his death, to be merely a sketch, and pupils filled in the 'missing' parts. Cumulative later scholarship has shown that there was nothing missing. This dark, Dostoevsky story of life in a Siberian prison camp was meant to be delivered with an angular austerity of texture; and that was how it happened last Saturday - dominated by the orchestra, which is the voice of action in a largely conversational piece, but with not a note more than Janacek actually wrote. It was bare, harrowing and effective.

You have to face the fact that there is a high-risk, hit-and-miss element in writing of this kind, and some of the weekend's lesser works were definite misses. The opening concert was an unworkable mix of items - voice and piano in the first half, orchestral in the second - and included a genuinely unfinished 'symphony', The Danube, which doesn't bear the scrutiny of performance and would never have amounted to much of a symphony even if Janacek had finished it. Likewise the Violin Concerto, which Ernst Kovacic played (impressively) on Sunday, is another cobbled-together score, abandoned by Janacek, who reprocessed the material into House of the Dead only to have it unprocessed back when he was no longer around.

But it was interesting - and an example of what makes weekends like this worthwhile - to hear the music in both its guises, operatic and concerto, side by side, just as it was to hear from the BBC Singers on Sunday some of the more dutifully conventional choral works that were the other side of Janacek's creativity: the Gebrauchsmusik he produced for Moravian teachers' choirs and the like in his role as local composer.

The BBC SO was not, alas, on good form and, for all the vitality of Andrew Davis, it turned in some pretty unvital playing. But there was a lot to learn from the programmes, not least the proper pronunciation of the composer's name (stress on the first a, longer vowel sound on the second: it's not easy). And I enjoyed the chamber input, including an impassioned performance of the extraordinary epic miniature The Diary of One who Disappeared by the Czech tenor Leo Marian Vodicka and atmospheric readings of the piano works by Radoslav Kvapil. Can there be a more haunting melody in all Janacek than the unison motif of the putative-piano sonata From The Street? I doubt it.

On Tuesday, the veteran Austrian tenor Kurt Equiluz made a rare appearance at the Wigmore Hall and showed what a voice best known as a Bach Evangelist can and can't bring to lieder repertory. Light, agile and intelligent, it was also thin of tone with no mid- ground between a delicately non- legato dusting of the notes and periodically explosive fffs. But it was still, in its contained, precise way, wonderfully expressive singing, introducing little-known but harmonically resourceful songs by Joseph Marx, and accompanied by a pianist named Margit Fussi who agreeably lived down the promise of her name.

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