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Janáček For Voices: The Choral Side Of An Unusual Composer

A new album by Cappella Amsterdam explores rarely performed choral music by Leos Janáček.
Marco Borggreve
Harmonia Mundi
A new album by Cappella Amsterdam explores rarely performed choral music by Leos Janáček.

There was nothing ordinary about Czech composer Leos Janáček. He set one opera in a barnyard and another on the moon. He fell for a married woman more than 30 years his junior, proceeding to write more than 700 love letters. And in his mid-60s, he churned out piece after amazing piece in one of classical music's most impressive late surges.

That deluge of new works included Nursery Rhymes, which appears on this new album of Janacek's rarely heard, intriguingly varied choral music by Cappella Amsterdam and conductor Daniel Reuss.

Inspiration for the short songs came from a series of drawings for children in the newspaper Lidové noviny (People's Paper), a music and arts daily published in the composer's home base, Brno. Nursery Rhymes was originally a suite of eight songs for three women's voices, clarinet and piano, and premiered in 1925. The following year, Janáček expanded the set by adding more songs, voices and instruments (including ocarina, toy drum and double bass).

Janáček's goal was to have fun with these 18 pieces — "something for laughter," he said — and it shows in these performances. There are songs about the marriage of a beet, a slow-moving mole, a kid who plays bass behind a cow's tail and an old woman casting magic spells. As in most of Janáček's writing for voice, the music is closely tied to speech patterns of the Czech language — tricky to pull off if you're not a native speaker, but the Cappella Amsterdam sounds remarkably natural. In "The Bear sat on a Log" you can virtually see the furry critter who tears his pant leg on a log that begins to roll out of control (aided by frenetic repetition in the wind instruments).

Not everything on this disc is fun and games. In 1903, Janáček's 20-year-old daughter Olga died, leaving the composer stunned but able to compose the touching Elegy on the Death of My Daughter Olga, a dialogue for tenor and mixed chorus with words by one of Olga's friends. And there are two beautiful religious settings — an Ave Maria and a 16-minute version of the Lord's Prayer.

The Wild Duck, from 1885, is an early piece intended for students (Janacek founded the Brno Organ School). Devoid of quirky rhythms and sudden bursts of passion, it barely sounds like Janacek, but in its own way it does anticipate the composer's opera The Cunning Little Vixen, in which the interrelationships of man and nature play a key role. In this story, told via a delicate, gracefully flowing mixed choir, a duck is wounded by a hunter and worries bitterly that she may never get to raise her ducklings.

If you know Janáček only by popular works like the Sinfonietta, Taras Bulba, the string quartets and an opera or two, this collection will provide a fresh look at a rarely glimpsed but important side of this most unusual composer.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.