Slávka Vernerová is one of the Czech Republic’s most distinctive pianists. She gives concerts all over the world – she performed a recital in Zurich’s famous Tonhalle, she was accompanied by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, and she was a huge success at London’s celebrated BBC Proms festival, playing under conductor Jiří Bělohlávek and accompanied by the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Slávka Vernerová put together her recital as a tribute to her teacher, Ivan Moravec, who would have turned ninety this November; her programme thus incorporates works which she had studied under the supervision of Moravec, one of the most important Czech and world pianists. In a Czech Television documentary, the maestro described the pianist as his best pupil.
Slávka Vernerová is one of the last pupils of the legendary Czech pianist Ivan Moravec (1930–2015). Critics concur that from her teacher, who described her as his best student, she acquired her refined touch, nobility and conscientious sense of self-criticism. With her recital tonight, incorporating works which she studied under Moravec’s supervision, the soloist pays tribute to her professor, who would have turned ninety on 9 November.
Martin Hršel, also a pupil of Moravec, was there at the start of Slávka Vernerová’s career. He immediately recognised her great talent and, while she was studying at grammar school, he offered to prepare her for her entrance examinations for Pardubice Conservatoire. While it meant getting up almost every day at 4.15am to travel to her lessons, Slávka – who had wanted to train as a doctor since she was a child – undertook this punishing schedule. Yet it paid off: she was accepted at the Conservatoire to study under Hršel, going straight into the second year. Not long after this she began parallel studies at Charles University’s medical faculty in Prague. She opted finally for a musical career after winning the Smetana International Piano Competition in Hradec Králové (1996); she is also a laureate of the international competitions in Wrocław (1995), Missouri (1998) and Wales (2001).
In 1998 she enrolled at Prague’s Academy of Music, studying under Ivan Moravec, with whom she did her master’s degree and her doctorate. She completed the latter in 2007 with a thesis on the piano oeuvre of Leoš Janáček, whose practical part was a recording of the composer’s complete solo and chamber works for piano. Two years later (still using her maiden name Slávka Pěchočová) she recorded all of Janáček’s works for solo piano for her debut CD. A review of this recording by Jindřich Bálek states the following: “Her performance is remarkable. Each part has its own story, a clear culmination, a point, precise and logical touch registers. Thanks to this logic we hear a number of details in a new way, or we discover them afresh.” Vernerová’s album, released in 2010 on the Praga Digitals label, won the highest rating in Le Monde de la musique and Harmonie magazines, and it was placed in the top ten by Belgium’s radio Classic.
In 2002, when Slávka spent three months on a post-graduate course at London’s Royal College of Music, Czech Television made a 40-minute documentary about her entitled Profession: Pianist, directed by Jan Mudra. Two years later she gave her solo debut at the Prague Spring. Since that time she has appeared with virtually all of the most important Czech orchestras and conductors (Libor Pešek, Jiří Bělohlávek, Martin Turnovský, Jakub Hrůša). Outside the country she has performed with the Gunma Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Liverpool Orchestra, among others, and in 2009 she joined Václav Mácha to perform Bohuslav Martinů’s Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra with Jiří Bělohlávek conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the celebrated Proms festival. She has given solo recitals in the Prague Symphony’s piano series, also in Zurich’s Tonhalle, in Osaka and Ottawa. In the meantime she made two further albums for Praga Digitals: a CD featuring works by Chopin and Schumann, and the 2013 release of her recording of three Mozart piano concertos with the Pražák Quartet; the record received all five “Golden Tuning Forks” from the prestigious Diapason magazine.
Slávka Vernerová is a keen chamber musician; she is a founding member of the Dvořák Piano Quartet, she performs in the Spring Duo with her husband, she appeared in the Kinsky Trio Prague in the years 2008–2015, and she works with leading instrumentalists and ensembles on the Czech music scene. She lives in Prague with her husband, the violinist, violist and conductor Petr Verner, and their two children.
LEOŠ JANÁČEK (1854–1928) was not only an exceptional, highly original composer, but he was also a patriot with strong social empathy. Accessible education for all Czechs was important to him and he supported endeavours to establish a Czech university in Brno, which culminated in 1905. Fearing the decline of their influence, the prevailing German inhabitants of the city summoned their representatives to a Volkstag at the beginning of October, while Czech deputies were to convene in Besední dům (Meeting House). These officially sanctioned events were accompanied by mass demonstrations which Janáček attended as well. In doing so he witnessed a tragic incident in which a German soldier stabbed a 20-year-old joiner’s assistant, František Pavlík, with his bayonet. The composer was shocked by his death, along with the entire Czech community: tens of thousands of people showed up at the young man’s funeral and Janáček even gave a short speech at his graveside. He projected his distress, perhaps also memories of his only daughter Olga, who had died of typhus two years previously, into a three-movement piano piece entitled From the Street, 1 October 1905.
The composition acquired the name “sonata” – reflecting the form of the first movement – at a time when it was considered lost. In January of 1906 the composer attended a general rehearsal of new music by some of his colleagues (works by Josef Bohuslav Foerster, Vítězslav Novák and Josef Suk, including part of the latter’s Spring cycle), which led to a bout of extreme, destructive self-criticism. He destroyed the third movement just before the premiere and threw the remaining two parts into the Vltava river after an informal performance in Prague. Nevertheless, they survived in a copy (today unfortunately missing) kept by the work’s first performer, Ludmila Tučková; Janáček later came to view the piece differently and ultimately consented to its publication.
In this work we will particularly note the use of a broad range of expressional means confined within a small space. In Presentiment the composer combines traditional elements (e.g. polyphony, imitation, inversion) with his typical compositional tools, such as “dulcimer” arpeggios, modality, speech melodies and what he termed sčasovky (the embodiment or process of rhythmical organisation and rhythmical dimension). The main key of E flat minor moves in the exposition to the positive key of G major (later G flat major), while the presentiment motif culminates in the development section (a descending tonal series), together with a greater density of sound, which moves fluently to the recapitulation and its “resigned” coda. This is followed by the elegiac part Death, typical for its treatment of rhythm and its economy of expression.
The eight-part piano cycle Humoresques Op. 101 by ANTONÍN DVOŘÁK (1841–1904) emerged towards the end of the composer’s American period, written during the summer vacation of 1894 at his summer residence in Vysoká near Příbram. Dvořák intended to conceive the work as a continuation of his Scottish Dances Op. 41 from 1877, thus he kept the 2/4 time signature and the regular eight-bar period; however, the result gave rise to pieces of such colourful character that he decided to give them a more universal title. On this occasion he drew inspiration from his American sketchbooks. He had jotted down a note in New York on New Year’s Eve 1893 relating to the theme for Humoresque No. 1 in E flat minor (Vivace), describing it as a “marcia funebre”; in the repetition of the second theme in E flat major he used the syncopated “Scotch snap” (a short, accented note followed by a longer note), familiar from the New World Symphony. Humoresque No. 3 in A flat major (Poco andante e molto cantabile) incorporates a succession of syncopation, dotted rhythms and the pentatonic scale, while Humoresque No. 5 in A minor (Vivace) is constructed on a modal theme with five repeated notes which we then hear more than thirty times in different keys.
Musicologist Jiří Berkovec had this to say about the piano cycle Spring Op. 22a by JOSEF SUK (1874–1935): “ʽSpringʼ is once again a work suffused with the kind of atmosphere and flair we will find in the composer’s music for Julius Zeyer’s staged fairy tale Radúz and Mahulena; its images are pastel-coloured; butterfly wings of delicate notes flutter above the keyboard, irradiated by flashes of fiery accents”. Suk wrote the cycle in April 1902 and he did, indeed, have spring in his soul: happily married to Antonín Dvořák’s daughter Otilie, he was delighted to announce the birth of a son, Josef.
Suk’s celebration of joy begins with the energetic Spring, which introduces a key element of the entire cycle: three ascending chords followed by a dotted rhythm. For the first fifty bars or so the composer avoids the principal key of E major; only after this do we hear the theme, which opens with three ascending notes. All the motifs are developed in various ways, such as via a chromatic progression in the bass, harmonic shifts and ornaments, before the return – in an almost exact repetition – of the theme in the fundamental key. The dotted rhythm reappears in the middle voice towards the end, and the softer dynamics intimate the atmosphere of the subsequent part. The shimmering, gentle The Breeze, from the outset established in the key of C major, is a subtle impression, leading to the part entitled In Expectation. Here the music is filled with tension for the first time, with emotional flurries, heightened chromaticism, syncopation and a denser texture; the dotted rhythm also returns. The conclusion brings a sudden pianissimo, while the melody is taken over by the bass.
After the preceding G flat major of In Expectation, the mere twenty-one bars of the fourth part without a poetic title are framed by the keys of A minor/A major, the composer ostensibly allowing the previous ideas to linger while preparing the listener for the passionate love song Longing, which follows attacca subito. The expansive melody in D flat major comprises a dotted rhythm which later functions as a counter-voice. After numerous variations of the main theme the musical current is momentarily brought to a halt with three chords (in a reminiscence of the introductory part), and three brusque chords also bring the entire cycle to a close.
We should thank destiny that, in 1834, ROBERT SCHUMANN (1810–1856) fell in love with 18-year-old Ernestine von Fricken, since it was she who inspired the composer to write the collection Carnaval Op. 9. The girl to whom he was briefly engaged hailed from the town of Asch, and Schumann, a lover of puzzles, appreciated the fact that the letters spelling out the name of the town could be conveyed in notes (in the musical cryptogram A – Es [E flat] – C – H [B]); moreover, these letters were contained in his own name as well. They simply lent themselves to musical treatment.
Schumann used the four notes as a musical base for all the parts of this highly diverse work, a depiction of a masked ball. We encounter stylised characters from the commedia dell’arte, Ernestine appears under the name Estrella (along with a declaration of love in No. 18, Aveu), as does Schumann’s future wife Clara (Chiarina) and composers he admired (Chopin and Paganini). Schumann himself is present in a dual role, two individuals who represent a soul rent in two: the impetuous, defiant and fiery Florestan and the gentle, serene and restrained Eusebius. Both were principal members of the Davidsbündler (“League of David”), a fictitious secret society created by the composer for his critical texts. The march of the Davidsbündler against the Philistines, deliberately written in triple time, ironises the latter group – as representatives of all things obsolete – via the melody of the German Baroque dance “Grossvatertanz”. Towards the middle of Carnavalwe find the mysterious Sphinxes, where three different variants of the above-mentioned four-note series stare stonily at us from the manuscript, with no specific tempo or other indications. According to a note in Clara Schumann’s edition, they are not meant to be played, however, certain pianists allow them to make their presence felt (such as Mitsuko Uchida). Carnaval ends, as is fitting for a ball, on the stroke of midnight – here signified by a chord in A flat major.
English translation by Karolina Hughes