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The Moravian Touch

New York
Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall
04/12/2008 -  
Leoš Janácek: String Quartet No. 1, “Kreutzer Sonata” – Moravian Folk Poetry in Songs (transcribed for voice and string quartet by Vladimír Godár, arranged by Iva Bittová and Škampa String Quartet)
Iva Bittová: Solo improvisation – Rain – Hopáhop Tálita
Pavel Fischer: Morava

Škampa String Quartet: Pavel Fischer, Jana Lukášová (violins), Radim Sedmidubský (viola), Lukáš Polák (cello) – Iva Bittová (violin/vocals)

With the inner, intense and mystical sounds of Philip Glass’s Satyagraha still ringing in my mind, a change was imperative. And nothing could be more contrary to the Glass sound than that of Leoš Janácek, the Czech composer who was no less mystical, but who wears his spirituality on his sleeve. But was he Czech? In a concert like this, where the string players and the singer came from Moravia, where the singing was totally Moravian, and where First Violinist Pavel Fischer wrote a fine piece based on Moravian folk tunes…

Let’s go for the reality. Janácek was born and educated in Moravia. One might not know this from the stirring string quartet here, but the Moravian folk songs which he wrote show, above all, that his music was Moravian.

I must confess that, not being an ethnomusicologist, I lived in Eastern Europe for several years, and still can’t tell much difference in the music of the region. The overlay is Gypsy, but the harsh modalities of Hungary, the harsh dances of Albania and the harsh bumptious music of Silesian Poland and Moravia have a certain sameness. Yes, when they are “gentrified” by Smetana or Bartók or Dvorák and Kodály, one can tell a difference. But in their native form, they have a certain similarity.

Nonetheless, Janácek’s book of Moravian folksongs, arranged first for string quartet and then quartet and singer, was beautifully played. It was difficult to follow which songs were which in the booklet, but the Škampa String Quartet was born for the task. The four young players are each expert players, as the Janácek String Quartet showed well. And in the folksongs, they took every available route, from thumping polkas to feet snapping and some clever dissonances.

Add to this the thunderous voice of Iva Bittová, a Moravian-born resident of upstate New York who is ballet dancer, actress, violinist, composer and a remarkable singer. I must first compare her range to the Peruvian singer Yma Sumác, who apparently could reach almost three octaves. She has the vocal tricks of Cathy Berberian, but has the jazz artistry of the late great Anita O’Day.

Ms. Bittová was relatively sedate in the Janácek. But sedateness was not in the cards for her own Improvisation. There, every vocal phenomenon was augmented by an East European foot-snapping and spinning, by hand-wringing , and not least, her fine violin playing, accompanying herself sometimes dissonantly, sometimes quite delicately.

She finished off with a clever piece called Rain and then two dances for string quartet. All of this showed her incredible range and harsh-ravishing voice. But since I speak no Czech (er…Moravian?), a little became a little too much.

Fortunately, the one encore of both the quartet and this singer was the most beautiful of all. Without vehemence, without undue energy, it was sensitive, quiet, modal, and left the enthusiastic audience with a rare touch of tenderness.

Harry Rolnick



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