Leoš Janáček’s Intimate Diary

Czech composer Leoš Janáček was already in his 60s and married when, in 1917, he fell hopelessly in love with Kamila Stösslová, a married woman 38 years his junior. Although it wasn’t the first time that Janáček had fallen in love with an “unobtainable,” his passion for Kamila was all-consuming. During the final 11 years of his life, while he lived under the same roof with a wife whom he had informally divorced, he sent Stösslová almost 730 letters and was inspired by his love for her to compose many of his greatest works.

Among the masterpieces spawned by Janáček’s unconsummated love was the 22-song cycle The Diary of One Who Disappeared, one of the great song cycles of the early 20th century. You can find elements of his infatuation with Stösslová in the lead characters of his operas Katya Kabanová, The Cunning Little Vixen, and The Makropulos Affair, but it was in the 35-minute The Diary of One Who Disappeared—a tale of forbidden love between a young Czech lad and a Moravian Roma gypsy girl—that Janáček expressed his deepest feelings about the nature of his one-sided affair. "I always thought about you in this work,"" Janáček wrote in a letter to Kamila. “You were [the gypsy] Zefka.”

For close to two decades, my go-to recording for the cycle has been tenor Ian Bostridge’s rendition with pianist Thomas Adès and mezzo-soprano Ruby Philogene. That recording was released in 2001 and has since been reissued on a Warner compilation. Preferable, in my opinion, is the new recording from tenor Nicky Spence and pianist Julius Drake on Hyperíon that includes contributions from mezzo-soprano Václava Housková and, on two tracks, a female chorus of Victoria Couper, Clemmie Franks, and Emily Burn.

Bostridge and Spence are both highly committed tenors who imbue their singing with passion, but Bostridge tends to overemphasize syllables and words to the point of preciousness in an effort to heighten drama. Spence, in contrast, uses his command of tonal color and dynamics, as well as his more cutting instrument, as his main means of expression. He infuses his sound with a pulsating strength that, depending upon how much edge he puts on the tone, expresses obsession to the point of agony and desperation, but he can also soften his voice to sound sweet and vulnerable. His fresh, strong voice has already taken him to New York’s Metropolitan Opera, in the Nico Muhly’s opera Two Boys, as well as to major houses in London, Madrid, Paris, Lyon, Seattle, and Frankfurt.

Equal credit for the recording’s success is due Julius Drake, one of our most thoughtful and creative song accompanists, and recording engineer Ben Connellan. Connellan captures the resonance of Drake’s piano and creates an ideal balance with Spence’s bright sound. Housková’s contributions are equally important, with the alluring beauty of her sound motivating the young man’s passion.

Janáček may have believed that the poems he was setting were folk tales, but some 80 years after his death, scholars learned that they were written by Ozef Kalda, who lived during Janáček’s lifetime.

As with Bizet’s Carmen and Verdi’s Il trovatore, among many other works, Kalda’s story perpetuates stereotypes of gypsies as uncivilized social degenerates. Happily, the young man breaks free of conventional norms and expectations, including his father’s choice for his bride, and abandons himself to his love for the gypsy Zefka and the son he has fathered.

To fill out the recording, which I auditioned in 24/96 format, we have eight late settings of Janáček’s Říkadla/Nursery Rhymes (1925) and 12 of his earlier Moravian folk poetry in songs (1890). The late settings, for 1-3 voices, clarinet and piano, are fascinating, while the folk songs are more conventional. Nonetheless, it is for the impassioned The Diary of One Who Disappeared that lovers of art song will seek out this recording.

While I can’t find any YouTube videos of Spence’s performance of The Diary, here is one of him in Janáček’s Jenufa.