Pavol Breslik Sings Janáček

JANÁČEK: The Diary of One Who Disappeared.* 6 National Songs by Eva Gabel. Songs of Detva, Bandit Ballads / Pavol Breslik, ten; *Ester Pavlu, mezzo; *Dominika Hanko, Zuzana Marczelová, sop; *Mária Kovács, mezzo; Robert Pechanec, pno / Orfeo C989201

This CD, which came out last year, some how flew under Naxos of America’s radar (I never saw it in the catalog), so I thought I’d review it now. The Diary of One Who Disappeared, written in 1921, is one of Janáček’s finest yet strangest song cycles. It is not, as the title would suggest, about secret police or undercover spies, but about a young man who falls in love with a dark gypsy woman who lives in the woods, has an affair with her that produces a child, and eventually runs away from home to go and live with her. Because of this, it is not sung just the tenor but also by a mezzo or contralto who does the part of the gypsy woman Zelka. Moreover, there is also a small chorus of three female voices who also sing in two of the songs.

This, I think, must be the only reason why it is seldom performed, because the music is simply wonderful. Although containing some modern harmonies, it is not ugly and off-putting like all of his operas but melodic like his instrumental works. It was a favorite piece of tenor Jon Vickers in his later years, though no recording of a performance by him has surfaced.

Young tenor Pavol Breslik has a very fine voice marred only by a prominent vibrato, albeit a steady and well-controlled one. He sings with energy and tosses out a few excellent high notes near the end of the cycle. Mezzo-soprano Ester Pavlu is also an excellent singer; she, too has a vibrato, but a more regular and contained one, and her vocal timbre puts you in mind of a gypsy singer. The three ladies who perform in the chorus all have pure, lovely voices, and pianist Robert Pechanec is also very fine.

But since this song cycle was new to me, I investigated other recordings. There’s a very good one in German rather than in Czech by the late Ernst Häfliger, one of my favorite tenors of the 1950s and early ‘60s, and a very poor one by the reedy, squally tenor Ian Bostridge. but the one that caught my eye was a recording I didn’t even know existed, sung in Czech by none other than Swedish tenor Nicolai Gedda. This was recorded in 1984 but apparently not issued on CD until 1995 because the label, Supraphon, couldn’t find other material to add to it. They eventually did something I think is rather dumb, which was to include a complete second performance of the cycle by tenor Benu Blachut mezzo Štipánka Štépánova. Why they didn’t just ask Gedda to record some of Janáček’s folk song arrangements, as Breslik does on this later CD, is beyond me.

The Gedda performance surprised me for two reasons. First was that Gedda was in superb voice for 1984. He began having a vocal crisis in 1973, around the time he recorded Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, and his singing deteriorated even further through the 1970s and into the very early ‘80s, but here he almost sounds like Gedda in his prime. Second was that, for a work that I’m pretty sure he had never sung before, his interpretation is much more detailed and dramatic than Breslik’s. The drawback was that he was stuck with an old and infirm-sounding contralto, Véra Soukupová, who had once been good but sounded like a train wreck by 1984.

Thus if I had to choose one commercial CD of this cycle, it would have to be this one, although in this day and age it’s not that difficult to simply cut and paste Pavlu’s much better voice into the Gedda performance. This isn’t as difficult as it sounds since the tenor and alto never sing together but rather alternate passages. And this is what I recommend.

As for the folk song settings, they are also wonderful, and here Breslik really shines, evidently enjoying himself. I couldn’t locate any other recordings of these specific songs on CD although the inlay for the record doesn’t claim them as first recordings.

This, then, is an excellent representation of this wonderful music, and if you don’t have the patience to cross-pollinate Pavlu and Gedda, is obviously the first choice.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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