Composers: Janáček
Compositions: The Diary of One Who Disappeared, Říkadla, Moravian Folk Poetry
Performers: Nicky Spence t, Julius Drake p, Václava Housková ms, VOICE, Victoria Samek cl
Catalogue Number: Hyperion CDA68282

In 1917, Janáček fell in love with Kamila Stösslová, a married woman some 40 years his junior. Although the composer himself was also married, and the jury is out on whether they ever consummated the relationship, it was Stösslová who inspired the 63-year-old Janáček’s final creative blossoming.

The Diary of One Who Disappeared is the first fruit of that relationship. The story of a village ploughboy who falls for a gypsy girl, eventually leaving home and family after she becomes pregnant with their child, is told in 22 short poems written in folk lyric style, purportedly found scribbled into the “diary” that the young man left behind him. It’s a simple tale, but told through challengingly sophisticated music, and thus a tricky work to get right.

Alongside a handful of Czechs, a few Brits have had a crack at it over the years, but none so successfully as Nicky Spence on this new Hyperion release. Unlike the unworldly Ian Bostridge, and the wonderfully imaginative but slightly cerebral Philip Langridge, Spence launches into it with a real whiff of the agricultural labourer about him. He’s matched perfectly here by Julius Drake in a superbly paced account that enables the tenor to explore every fleeting nuance of songs that are sometimes over in as little as 30 seconds.

Spence is strong on his closeted character’s febrile perturbation from the start, aided by Drake’s twitchy accompaniment, but he can also summon expressive power with great clods of virile tone in work songs like “Hey there my tawny oxen”. There’s plenty of soaring lyricism too in “Twilight glow worms” and “Have I a beauty” with its joyous stutterings. Drake is equally adept at finding the dynamic light and shade in a number like “Already swallows”, while in his hands, Janáček’s daring Intermezzo Erotico is revealed as a throbbing masterpiece of priapic musical storytelling.

But it’s Spence’s attention to text that really impresses. Listen to the world of transgressive excitement that opens up as he caresses his gypsy love’s name, “Zefka” and the erotic charge he gives to a phrase like “‘Behold, my bed,’ she said.” His effortless shifts from full, to half voice, and down to barely a whisper carry the listener along until he crowns the cycle with a magnificent pair of ringing top C’s.

Václava Housková makes a fine siren in the three central songs, her warm mezzo tinged with the weary edge of the outcast gypsy’s social burden. Later, she partners Spence nicely in a dozen of the composer’s charming Moravian Folksongs. The recording is most naturally presented, though the placement of the edgy Voices vocal trio in The Diary and in Janáček’s lively Říkadla (Nursery Rhymes) feels oddly synthetic.

Nevertheless, Spence and Drake’s reading is revelatory. Recommended.

Nicky Spence’s recording of Janáček’s The Diary of One Who Disappeared is Limelight‘s Recording of the Month in September. 

Read our interview with Nicky Spence