“How could it have happened that the ample and valuable song
tradition, once so popular in our country, has faded away?” asks the Czech
soprano Martina Janková, adding: “A single song can encompass the entirety
of human fate!” The internationally acclaimed singer, a long-time member of
the Zurich Opera, is doing her utmost to bring songs back to the concert stage
and CDs. Her bright, sparklingly nimble voice has been captured on albums of
Leoš Janáček and Bohuslav Martinů songs. Her new Supraphon album, titled
PRAGUE – VIENNA (SU 4231–2), presents vocal works by Czech and Austrian
Classicist composers, dating from the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries.
A number of the graceful songs featured on the recording will be a revelation
for the listener. The pianist and harpsichordist Barbara Maria Willi, who has
compiled the album’s repertoire and who accompanies Martina Janková on a
fortepiano, has recently discovered some of the pieces in archives.
Barbara Maria Willi says that that you have been inspired by Eduard
Möricke’s novella Mozart On His Journey to Prague.
Yes, that’s right. Barbara was fantastic when it came to selecting the
repertoire; she possesses an immense knowledge. The project was her idea. When
she showed me all the musical gems, I didn’t hesitate and immediately agreed
to participate in the album. It was a huge revelation for me too.
In the Classical era, the musical route between Prague and Vienna and
Vienna and Prague was well travelled, as attested to by your album. Were you
surprised to learn that songs journeyed between the cities too?
In the past, songs used to enjoy immense popularity in Prague and Vienna alike.
I don’t understand how it could have happened that the ample and valuable
song tradition has faded away. I’ve been giving it plenty of thought,
discussing it with fellow musicians. The other day, I talked about this
phenomenon with Ivo Kahánek, who loves performing songs and has been striving
to promote them in our country. He shares my opinion that songs have not been
paid sufficient attention to. They once enjoyed great popularity, yet the
tradition has disappeared!
Why do you think it has disappeared? We have so many wonderful songs,
composed by the likes of Smetana, Dvořák, Janáček, Martinů, Novák,
Yes, there are plenty of songs out there, yet they are rarely performed on
concert stages. Such minor musical forms haven’t been attributed the value
they possess. That is strange indeed, as the Czechs are fond of small forms –
we really like chamber music. There are so many chamber ensembles here! Chamber
music is much favoured, so why is it not the case of vocal pieces?
What may have caused the current situation?
Some have told me that the academies give preference to arias, arias, and yet
more arias, since everyone desires to perform the “grand” forms. As if the
small forms were inferior, less intriguing, even though they often bear
astonishing ideas expressed by global poets. Perhaps we have inherited this
approach from the previous regime, when only grand voices were considered to be
worthwhile. It would seem that grand Russian voices held sway. Even the ample
Baroque and oratorio tradition was ignored (as well as creations by Mendelssohn,
Brahms, etc.) until the time when it was resurrected by Messrs Luks, Štryncl
And you are one of those who have striven to revive this
I am not sure whether I have been successful in this respect, but I do my
utmost to present songs, as well as participate in performing lesser-known
oratorios. Such performances have included Mysliveček’s La passione di
nostro Signore Gesu Cristo and Jan Dismas Zelenka’s masses at the Prague
Spring festival, for instance. In December, we will deliver
Bononcini’s forgotten oratorio San Nicola di Bari at the Sts Simon and Jude
Church in Prague, we are planning to perform Rossini’s Petite messe
solennelle, and other works. When it comes to Czech songs, I have always tried
to put them into context with the international pieces, whose performance has a
great and vivid tradition. We have also actually done this on our new album, on
which Mozart and Haydn’s songs are juxtaposed with those by Koželuh,
Voříšek and other composers.
Barbara and I understood and inspired each other. We felt happy to be able to
bring to the light true gems that have been forgotten. And just as splendid has
always been my collaboration with the pianist Ivo Kahánek. We have jointly
recorded songs by Janáček and Martinů. Our aim is to draw the
audience’s attention and rediscover such beautiful vocal pieces.
Worthy of mention in this connection is the Supraphon edition Music
from Eighteen-Century Prague, which to date has encompassed a number of
releases, including your album. What is your opinion of the series?
It’s a truly wonderful project. In this respect, I would like to mention
Václav Luks, owing to whom I have discovered numerous splendid pieces. These
include Jan Dismas Zelenka’s works, which for a long time I previously
hadn’t had in my repertoire. Of late, however, I have often performed Zelenka
And alongside Mozart and Haydn on the new CD…
And when I perform Brahms, it is usually alongside Dvořák. By and large,
I have always striven to place a Czech counterpart next to a foreign composer,
with the aim to show that in no respect did our composers lag behind the
celebrated global creators. We try to demonstrate that the Czechs too have their
song tradition. Even though dormant at the moment…
On the album, you sing the pieces by W. A. Mozart, V. A. Tomášek,
Leopold Koželuh, Joseph Haydn, Jan Václav Voříšek and others in the
original German. Yet the booklet contains the lyrics both in German and Czech,
so all the listeners will be able to understand what they are
At the time, Bohemia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, with the national
revival yet to enter the general awareness. Prague was said to be a suburb of
Vienna … Many Czech composers lived in Vienna, spoke German, and wrote music
to German texts. German was an official language.
You and your father have translated some of the lyrics into Czech,
using an archaic form of the language which comes across as authentic and
lovely. Did you attempt to evoke the era of the national revival?
We didn’t want to modernise the poetic language; I don’t think it would
have been appropriate.
Barbara Maria Willi was your partner as regards the album, not merely
an accompanist to your voice.
I have had the opportunity to work with several instrumental soloists par
excellence, top-notch performers of songs, including Roger Vignoles, Charles
Spencer, Gérard Wyss and Ivo Kahánek. All of them are superlative solo
players, none of them is a mere accompanist. That means that I have always had
an equal partner. It concerns a duo of two soloists – chamber music as it
should be. Had they only been accompanists, the songs wouldn’t have come
across as they should. After all, the composers wrote them for both a virtuoso
pianist and a virtuoso vocalist.