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Album review: Pianist Cathy Krier bravely gathers up Leos Janácek's wandering spirit

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The operas of Czech composer Leos Janácek (1854-1928) are a staple of the world’s best opera houses (including Toronto’s), and he wrote two prized string quartets. But we hardly ever hear his music for solo piano — and there’s a lot of it.

Young Luxembourg pianist Cathy Krier made it a personal mission to collecting all of Janácek’s music for solo piano and figure out which pieces were most deserving of her time and musical attention. The result is Leos Janácek: The Piano, a remarkable two-CD album from German label Avi.

There are many ways of conceptualizing a piece. J.S. Bach, for example, wrote absolute music, which is pure structure that makes no effort to sound like anything or depict anything. Programmatic music, born in Romantic times, sought to translate landscapes, events and emotions into sound. The turgid late compositions of Franz Liszt are an extreme example of the latter.

Janácek belonged to the latter camp, becoming a model of economical expression. Despite growing up in the age of Johannes Brahms, Janácek has more in common with moderns Dmitri Shostakovich and Benjamin Britten.

But the emotionally expressive economy of means that gives Janácek operas such force makes for incredible challenges when it’s just two hands at a piano keyboard on an otherwise empty stage. The biggest problem is dealing with constant, abrupt, often violent changes in mood; this is something most people simply don’t want in their solo-piano listening.

Brave men like Andras Schiff have gone on this journey in a mood of restraint, often making Janácek’s music sound impersonal.

Enter Krier, sweetly seductive one moment, roiling tempestuously the next. She is, despite this, a model of restraint. But, most impressively, there is a warm, beating heart at the centre of every piece on these two discs. Here is the old married man madly in love with a younger woman. Here is the proud patriot. Here is also the serious ethnomusicologist.

Krier has laid the pieces out in a rough chronology so that a set of Moravian Dances (from 1888-1889) appears on the first CD along with Janácek’s most-performed piece, the suite On An Overgrown Path (composed in installments between 1900 and 1911).

The most daring work, a sonata-form response to the uprisings of 1905, opens the second CD, which continues with short pieces that include many works from the last years of the composer’s life.

With the exception of the dances, none of this is easy listening, but it is a fascinating counterpart to Janácek’s operas. Not just well-played, the music collected here has been intelligently and compellingly programmed. Krier has not just given us the best of herself, she is giving us the best of Janácek, making something coherent of his wandering spirit.

The label’s website is a model for how not to do things. Nonetheless, you can start your journey here.

This is the album’s promotional video:

John Terauds

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