Encore: Thirty-six Czech fugues and Janacek in search of his musical identity

In this edition of Encore we hear from a Czech master of the fugue and we feature a recording of a fascinating early orchestral piece by Janacek, sounding very different from the composer as most people know him.

A Czech master of counterpoint

Antonin Rejcha
Where does Johann Sebastian Bach tie in with the history of Czech music? The answer is counterpoint, and a Czech master of the art, Antonin Rejcha. We featured his Requiem Mass about a year ago, with the re-issue of a 1988 CD by Supraphon. Rejcha taught at the Paris Conservatory, and was the teacher of Liszt, Berlioz, Cesar Franck and other big names in the early years of the 19th century.

His magnum opus is probably his collection of 36 fugues for keyboard, and a wonderful new recording has just come out on the Arta label, performed by Jaroslav Tuma on an Anton Walter piano dating from 1790. This make of piano was favoured by Mozart, and he had one similar to this. One of the fugues takes its subject from Bach's G Major Fugue, from the second book of the Well-Tempered Klavier. It is very different in its sound, but is very pleasant to listen to.

When you study counterpoint in music school, teachers sometimes give you a theme and send you home to write a fugue on it. And so you do, you come back to class, and everyone has written something. You play them, and everyone's is quite different. The teacher then reveals that the theme was by Bach, and then plays what Bach did with it. Of course it blows all the student efforts away! The variety in Rejcha's fugues is also remarkable.

Some unexpected early Janacek

We move on to Leos Janacek, but not as most people know him. Supraphon has reissued a recording of the Brno Philharmonic under Frantisek Jilek, playing his earliest orchestral piece, the Suite for String Orchestra from 1877. It shows various influences, has plenty of drama, and at times even shows hints of Tchaikovsky.

This was when Janacek was still a young man, and was teaching. It is always fascinating to follow the mysterious process through which composers find their distinctive voice, and certainly the voice Janacek eventually developed is among the most distinctive.

The CD also features the Idyll for Strings, another early work, and the Lachian dances.

CDs reviewed in this programme are provided by Siroky Dvur