Musical taste can be a mysterious thing. That's why Mahler remained unpopular for 50 years after his death and then suddenly became, and has remained, the rage. Leos Jana'cek was roughly Mahler's contemporary, and produced much music of the greatest individuality and substance. Only now are his operas entering the repertory. And his orchestral and choral works are being heard more. But his powerful piano music remains pretty much the province of two keepers of the Jana'cek flame: Ivan Moravec, who is now a judge in the University of Maryland Piano Competition, and Rudolf Firkusny, who played the composer's "On an Overgrown Path, Part I" in a recital at the Tawes Theatre last night.
From the titles, this set of instrumental miniatures sounds like a group of sentimental vignettes based on childhood. There are titles like "A Blown-Away Leaf," "Good Night" and "In Tears." Tender they are, but they are not even remotely sentimental. It is more a work like Schumann's "Scenes of Childhood," elusive in meaning and exquisitely refined--but written in Jana'cek's distinctive harmonic and linear style. Firkusny's performance was outstanding, as usual.
This is music that anyone who values the piano literature should get to know. There is a simple way to do so, because Firkusny's recording of the Jana'cek piano works has just been reissued on Deutsche Grammophon's bargain Collector's Series (with Rafael Kubelik conducting in the works that are with orchestra). It is a superb set.
The other high point of last night's program at the University's piano festival was the rarely heard Schumann "Davidbundlertanze." It is an intricate and shadowy work that is now being heard more as a result of the ballet that Balanchine set to it a few years ago. It is not particularly melodic by the standards of Schumann's refulgent lyricism. It is enormously difficult to play and requires intense concentration. Firkusny, who is both an instinctive lyricist and a formidable musical intellectual, had the music utterly in hand.
The program opened with an urgent, flowing performance of Mozart's assertive Sonata in C Minor, K. 457. And it closed with Smetana's Four Czech Dances, buoyant works that are not-too-distant relations of Brahms' Hungarian Dances.