Encore: From a cartoon fox to a cellist admired by Mozart's father

Leos Janacek

Today we look at Janacek's Cunning Little Vixen, recently featured at the Proms in London, and we feature a brand new recording - the first ever CD featuring both the piano concertos of one of the leading Czech composers of the early 19th century. We also discuss a Supraphon re-release of cello concertos by a composer whose playing was admired by Mozarts father.

The Cunning Little Vixen - an opera inspired by a cartoon

We start with Leos Janacek's opera The Cunning Little Vixen, which came to the attention of one of our listeners, Brian Kendall. He heard the piece at a BBC Proms concert in London, and wrote that he would like to know more about it. We featured the opera in Encore a few years ago when the BBC released it as a DVD in a delightful animated version. It was conducted by Kent Nagano and the animation was by Geoff Dunbar, one of the best known contemporary British animated film makers.

If it strikes you as almost sacrilegious to make a cartoon version of an opera, think again. Janacek's own inspiration was a cartoon. Story has it that he was trying to compose and was disturbed when he overheard his maid in the next room, laughing her head off. He went in to have a look, and found she was looking at some cartoons in the newspaper about a half-tame, half-wild fox. He became fascinated with the story, which was so popular it was eventually turned into a novel.

Photo: CzechTourism
Many of the characters are animals - a frog, a badger, a dog, foxes, birds, a dragonfly, a cricket - but there are humans too - a forester, a schoolteacher, and so forth. Near the beginning of the opera, the forester catches the vixen when she is just a cub and, somewhat rashly, takes her home to make a pet out of her. She is of course miserable in his farmyard, and Janacek portrays her feelings of unhappiness very acutely.

Fortunately the vixen does escape - not before biting the heads off the chickens - and goes on to get married and raise a litter of cubs. We won't reveal the ending, but I would like to point out that, at the time of writing the opera, Janacek had returned to his boyhood village, Hukvaldy, and made a habit of going into the woods to watch foxes at play, and to listen to the birds and other animals to fire his musical imagination. There is a statue where, according to legend, he sat and made his observations.

A first from the Prague Radio Symphony

We turn to something completely new - the first ever recording of both of Vaclav Jan Tomasek's piano concertos. These are recorded by our very own Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra under Vladimir Valek, with pianist Jan Simon. You may remember from an earlier Encore that Tomasek, who lived from 1774 until 1850, was perhaps the leading musical figure in Prague in his day. These concertos were written when he was around 30 years old, and show his admiration of Mozart.

Cello concertos by Josef Rejcha

We have another disk of concertos today - Cello Concertos by Josef Rejcha. This is a Supraphon reissue of a 1995 recording by cellist Mikael Ericsson and the Czech Chamber Orchestra. We've featured a requiem by Antonin Rejcha on an earlier show. Josef, whose dates are 1752 to 1795, was Antonin's uncle, and a big influence on him. Like most Bohemian musicians of his day, he spent his career abroad, most notably in Bonn. He was particularly well-known as a cellist, praised by no less than Leopold Mozart in a letter to his son Wolfgang.

CDs reviewed in this programme are provided by Siroky Dvur