To die in the midst of a thriving career at 51 exacerbates the loss of this quietly gripping pianist. This piece ran last fall when I fell in love with his Janacek recording, music I hadn't known before; Vogt drew me in and made me listen closely. I'll also miss his chamber music collaborations with violinist Christian Tetzlaff.
With his tart rhythms and uneasy tonality, Leoš Janáček, a late Romantic Czech composer and early innovator in folk musicology, circles his own little cul-de-sac. Among the first to use Edison’s “portable” phonograph to compile Moravian and Slavic folk songs, few understand how his modal experiments rival Claude Debussy as tonal pioneer, and his jittery rhythmic sense has just enough rarefied dander to limit his reach; both Antonín Dvořák and Bedřich Smetana overshadow Janáček as nationalist composers. Opera buffs cherish The Cunning Little Vixen as a staple of the standard repertoire, but what do they know? The novelist Milan Kundera cherished Janáček’s two expansive string quartets, which boast scads of recordings from top ensembles. But pianists steer around much of Janáček’s output, most of which he wrote during the last decade of his life between 1918 and 1928, just as the Hungarians Zoltán Kodály and Béla Bartók began legitimizing his folk music research.
The latest disc from pianist Lars Vogt upends this perfidy, just as most of Vogt’s recordings stray from received expectations. His 1991 EMI Classics debut disc, now unavailable on streaming services, sported a respectable program of Haydn, Brahms, and Schubert. But after a dutiful Grieg/Schumann Concerto disc with conductor Simon Rattle, Vogt shifted to chamber music alongside his solo repertoire, first with cellist Truls Mørk, and then as violinist Christian Tetzlaff’s keyboardist for sonatas and trios. With Tetzlaff, Vogt has released radiant recordings of the Brahms Violin Sonatas and Piano Trios, and the Schumann’s Violin Sonatas, alongside equally elegant and beguiling solo performances, most recently with pristine yet earthy Mozart Sonatas. 2020 brought his Brahms Second Piano Concerto, typically considered too demanding to conduct from the keyboard, and despite undergoing chemotherapy for liver cancer, he conducts the new season of the Orchestre de chambre de Paris. Several recordings of his Mozart concertos, conducting from the keyboard, appear on YouTube, as does a leisurely Schumann Symphony No. 2.
Schumann - Symphonie n° 2 - Orchestre de chambre de Paris & Lars Vogt
Vogt’s unconventional piano career has intriguing payoffs, most importantly in the curious way he never really seems to play by himself, even when he’s alone at the piano. His engagement with the material transcends technique, or rather subsumes technique into something more like a conversation. His latest release from the Finnish Ondine label, of Janáček’s Sonata and two suites (“On An Overgrown Path,” and “In the Mists”), ranks Vogt as a virtuoso of personal interpretation.
The Sonata has two ominous movements: “Foreboding” starts off with some jerky figures and sudden hesitations, a stop-and-start gesture that recurs throughout. Through Janáček’s charged patterns, Vogt tries out sounds, repeats them, plows forwards, only to land on unfamiliar yet oddly satisfying new material. Janáček’s palette shares a lot with Debussy in terms of wispy upper glissandi and impetuous swirls, but he always returns to a melodic frame, rephrasing each time and repeating again as if in incantation. Many passages resemble orchestral squalls and then return again into thoughtful restatements; he steps around Romantic clichés to flirt with impressionism—colors creating moods—all through their own organic motions. Instead of thematic development, Janáček seems to think out loud, exploring implicative textures as though they yield to their underlying impulses. His quiet moments emerge stronger than any outbursts, his daunting questions emerge into reveries...