Leoš Janáček and the generation younger Béla Bartók and Igor Stravinsky were major 20th-century composers markedly influenced by folk music, bringing it to bear in their own creations. Their works feature on the remarkable new album Village Stories of the world-renowned Prague Philharmonic Choir, led by Lukáš Vasilek. Stravinsky’s Les noces, Janáček’s Nursery Rhymes and Bartók’s Village Scenes are brought back to life on new recordings. Vasilek invited to the studio superb soloists, including the soprano Kateřina Kněžíková, the mezzo-soprano Jana Hrochová, the tenor Boris Stepanov and the baritone Jiří Brückler, as well as the outstanding pianists Zoltán Fejérvári and Kirill Gerstein, the Zemlinsky Quartet and the Belfiato Quintet. Supraphon will release the album on 27 October 2023 on CD and in digital formats.
The three challenging works featured on the album have been undertaken by the illustrious Prague Philharmonic Choir, led by Lukáš Vasilek, who on numerous occasions have displayed a great sense for performing music inspired by folk art. Village Stories links up to the highly acclaimed recording of Bohuslav Martinů’s cantatas (Gramophone Editor’s Choice, nomination for the BBC Music Magazine Award). Lukáš Vasilek said: “At the beginning, there was our intention to explore and perform Stravinsky’s Le noces. Subsequently, we sought similarly singular pieces, based on Slavic folk music. Janáček’s Nursery Rhymes was a clear choice, as it suits Stravinsky’s ballet-cantata perfectly, yet it took us some time to find the third composition. And it was only by chance that I came across Bartók’s Village Scenes, which I did not know at all. I think it was the right pick. I deem the combination of the three pieces excellent.”
Janáček and Bartók also keenly devoted to folklore as theoreticians. Stravinsky, for his part, was mesmerised by folk rituals. A case in point is Les noces, which in four choreographed scenes depicts Russian wedding customs, with most of the lyrics based on folk songs. Stravinsky significantly revised the instrumentation, before arriving at the definitive version. Janáček conceived his Nursery Rhymes at the age of 71, shortly after completing the opera The Makropulous Case. He too made changes to the instrumentation before attaining a satisfactory form. The second version of the set bears witness to Janáček’s being enthralled by Stravinsky’s music. The Village Scenes for female voices and chamber orchestra feature arrangements of folk tunes Bartók collected in and around Zvolen in Slovakia. He was evidently influenced by Stravinsky’s style as well. The chorus master and conductor Lukáš Vasilek pointed out: “All the three pieces are extremely difficult to perform, as well as rather delicate. What’s more, the instrumentation is quite bizarre. When it comes to the recording sessions, everyone involved manifested great enthusiasm – not only the singers and musicians, but also the recording director, sound engineers, editor and executive producer. All of us were well aware of the requirements the pieces placed on us, and duly prepared really meticulously.”