Album detail
Catalogue number: SU 4231-2

“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, Eben…
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 others.

And you are one of those who have striven to revive this tradition.
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 alongside Bach.

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 about.
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.

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