Out of the Shadows

Friday, 11 February 2022

Mélodies: French song and Czech rarities from two young Czech singers

Ravel, Faure, Roussel, Debussy, Josef Páleníček; Lukáš Zeman, Michaela Zajmi, Pavel Voráček; Radioservis Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 9 February 2022 Star rating: 3.0 (★★★) Songs by the 20th century Czech composer Josef Páleníček alongside those of his teacher Roussel and other French composers  Radioservis is a record label owned by Czech Radio (Český Rozhlas), and a recent disc from them is an engaging recital which features two young singers, Lukáš Zeman (baritone) and Michaela Zajmi  (mezzo-soprano) with pianist Pavel Voráček in a programme that mixes songs by Ravel, Faure, Roussel and Debussy with songs by the Czech composer Josef Páleníček including his Songs of Ancient China.

Ravel, Faure, Roussel, Debussy, Josef Páleníček; Lukáš Zeman, Michaela Zajmi, Pavel Voráček; Radioservis

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 9 February 2022 Star rating: 3.0 (★★★)
Songs by the 20th century Czech composer Josef Páleníček alongside those of his teacher Roussel and other French composers

Radioservis is a record label owned by Czech Radio (Český Rozhlas), and a recent disc from them is an engaging recital which features two young singers, Lukáš Zeman (baritone) and Michaela Zajmi  (mezzo-soprano) with pianist Pavel Voráček in a programme that mixes songs by Ravel, Faure, Roussel and Debussy with songs by the Czech composer Josef Páleníček including his Songs of Ancient China.

Josef Páleníček (1914-1991) studied in Prague and then in Paris in the 1930s, where his teachers were Albert Roussel (composition) and Alfred Cortot (piano). He is a name that is not particularly well known in the West though Páleníček composed a significant body of work. On the disc his song cycles are interleaved with the French ones in a way that works perhaps because there was something a little traditional about Páleníček's style, though the fact that after the war he lived in Czechoslovakia under Communist domination would explain an element of conservatism (and according to Wikipedia he became a member of the Communist Party).

So we being with Ravel's Histoires Naturelles from 1907, his settings of Jules Renard where the setting of prose brings the text to the fore. Lukáš Zeman has a lovely, resonant, flexible baritone and throughout the disc I was impressed with the way he was able to phrase music and sing a fine, fluid line. In the Ravel, he is finely flexible in his approach to the text. His French is good, but there were moments in these songs where he seemed more concerned with sound than with bringing out the text. 

Next comes Josef Páleníček's Songs of Ancient China (Zpěvy staré Číny), sung by mezzo-soprano Michaela Zajmi, These set Czech texts by Bohumil Mathesius based on Ancient Chinese poetry. Mathesius published his first volume in 1939, and the poems were popular with Czech composers, including Páleníček. But we don't have something fragrant and exotic here, instead the music can be disquieting so that the second, Perly a růže (Pearls and the Rose), ends with anti-war appeal. Here we come to a limitation of the packaging of the disc as the texts only have the original language, so the meaning of the Czech texts remains, largely, obscure [I now understand that translations are planned on the website, but have been held up by technical issues].

The first song has a significant piano part with a long introduction and when the voice comes in it is very declamatory, and there is a striking contrast between the voice and the sophisticated piano part (it comes as no surprise that Páleníček was a gifted pianist). The second song seems hint at Bach in the piano, and is rather a dramatic arioso, the third is more considered by has a dramatic edge to it. The fourth gives us vivid rhythms and harmonies. In all the songs, the vocal line is declamatory and this is very much emphasised by the dramatic edge that Zajmi gives her voice, contrasting always with the far busier, highly descriptive piano writing. The voice that I often came back to when listening to these was the Stravinsky of Les Noces!

We follow this with baritone Lukáš Zeman in Faure's Poeme d'un jour, his first song cycle dating from 1878 which traces a love affair from relationship to passion to break-up. Zeman sings with a lovely flexible, lyrical line bringing a nice range of colours to it, and all three songs seem to set Zeman's expressive line against a busier piano texture ranging from the flowing first song to the more vigorous second and the thoughtful third.

Then Zajmi returns with Páleníček's song Měsíc nad Mylaj (Moon over Mylaj) which is responding to the news of the massacre of civilians in 1969 in the Vietnam war. Here the rather plain vocal line is set against a more complex piano, with the piano writing giving the music any spikiness. The outer sections are intriguing and the music very much draws you in with the middle section having a positive explosion of words with Zajmi creating some terrific drama.

The remaining songs on the disc are all sung by baritone Lukáš Zeman. First Debussy's Trois mélodies de Paul Verlaine. The first featuring a lovely expansive vocal line from Zeman, the second more intimate and intriguing, with voice and piano intertwining, and the final song is vividly chattery.

Páleníček's Čtyři písně pro baryton (Four songs for baritone), are far more folk-ish in nature than his other songs on the disc though again they set Mathesius' Chinese lyrics. The first song, Verbíř ze Šihao (Shihao Recruiter) is perky with a swing to the rhythm, but there are complexities too, you would never mistake this for a traditional song for all the folk influence. Zab kohouta (Kill the Rooster) has a significant piano part, fast and dramatic with a more declamatory vocal line, whilst Volavka stříbrná (Silver Heron) features a slow lyrical vocal line over an elegantly clear piano accompaniment. The final song, Tři kumpáni (Three Pals) is a drinking song, with a vivid and lively piano accompaniment.

We finished with a group of four songs by Albert Roussel, setting the Symbolist poet Henri Regnier. In Le départ the vocal line flows around the text, with the piano colouring and commenting. Voeu has a lyrical vocal line over a flowing piano part, and this seems to be a style that Roussel enjoys. Both the remaining songs, Le jardin mouillé and Madrigal lyrique feature a slower moving lyrical line over a faster piano part, and in Le jardin mouillé we can hear clear echoes of Debussy's Jardins sous la Pluie in the evocative piano part.

This is an engaging recital, and I was particularly taken with Lukáš Zeman's performances in the French songs where he seems to have a particular sympathy. I would like to know more about Josef Páleníček,  the songs on this disc are intriguing yet the lack of an English translation (see comment above) is somewhat frustrating. Certainly the performances on the disc project admirably Josef Páleníček's quite distinctive song-writing voice. Throughout Pavel Voráček's pianism impresses, as he brings a light flexibility and strong technique to the French song whilst demonstrating a mastery of Josef Páleníček's significant piano parts. Definitely a disc to explore.

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) - Histoires naturelles
Josef Páleníček (191401991) - Zpěvy staré Číny (Song of Ancient China)
Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) - Poeme d'un jour, op. 21
Josef Páleníček - Měsíc nad Mylaj
Claude Debussy (1862-1918) - Trois mélodies de Paul Verlaine
Josef Páleníček - Čtyři písně pro baryton (Four songs for baritone)
Albert Roussel (1869-1937)     - Quatre poemes, op. 3
Lukáš Zeman (baritone)
Michaela Zajmi (mezzo-soprano)
Pavel Voráček (piano)
RADIOSERVIS CR1128-2 1CD [72:54]







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