Into the Historical Liver (of Moravian Folk Music)
The speaker was Jiří Plocek, leader of a duo with Jitka Šuranská. Their performance celebrated the release of their new CD, Plocek & Šuranská: Písňobraní ["Song Harvest"] (Indies Records, 2005). The duo follows Plocek's earlier group Teagrass, which was known for its combinations of Moravian folk songs (as taken from published collections) with bluegrass (Plocek picked up this style during post-graduate studies in Indiana). The duo widens Teagrass's eclectic taste to include jazzy-bluesy feels (though they're nothing like Brian Wilson's – that's a joke, sorry for the obscurity since I'm probably the only one who gets it), Romanian/Slovakian/Góral songs and timbres, and a hint of Celticness thrown in for good measure.
The first half was nice but lacked energy. The liver of this part was the partial ballad taken from František Sušil's nineteenth-century collection of Moravian folk songs. Although Ms. Šuranská had a beautiful and clear voice, it did have the sharp timbre or projection to compete with Mr. Plocek's violin at all times. In the Sušil ballad however, probably due to the starkness of their arrangement (very limited violin part), her voice worked quite nicely. (This problem is masked on the CD by good sound engineering.) It also featured Mr. Plocek's playing on birchwood "clarinet" made by Wallachian instrument-maker Vít Kaspařík. This instrument has a beautifully plaintive timbre and a fascinatingly smooth yet not-so-finely-textured tone. It sounds like a clarinet, but the player has less control of the reed (I gather) which makes changes in the pitch continuous glissandos with a smooth wavy-glass-like quality. Most of the songs on this half were from the duo's new album, others from Teagrass’s album Moravské písně milostné (Gnosis Records, 1999).
The second half picked up the energy and featured friends (and family) of the duo. First was the Slovak (?) violinist Stanislav (Stano) Palúch. He helped christen the new CD with a bottle of the bubbly and a bit of comedy (I didn't get the jokes since they were in Slovak, although it was clear that the audience was amused by the phallic implications of the bottle and the exertions of opening it). Stanko is an energetic performer and I gather he is well-known for his jazz/bluegrass violin technique. He added spontaneity and a welcome joie de vivre to the rest of the concert. The trio was joined by Plocek's daughter, Markétka, for "Hlubočí, hlubočí" (deep, deep [river]). The final highlight of the evening was the singing of Jaromír Nečas with cimbál player Jura Petrů (both from Kyjov, a town to the south and east). Nečas was welcomed as a friend of Plocek's (they collaborated on the 1998 critical release and re-mastering of [some of] Leoš Janáček's field recordings published by Plocek's independent company Gnosis Brno). Nečas is also featured on the new CD, but the highlight of his performance were the songs with cimbál. Though not known as a singer, he certainly has a feel for the songs, probably gathered in part through his many years of work as an editor at Czech Radio in Brno. Both duos (minus Plocek's daughter and Stanko) played together in a final encore which also featured audience participation.
Nečas's spoken comments also caught my attention. He noted that at least two of the songs he sang were notated in Sušil's collection. He noted, however, that while Sušil listed one of them as originating in Rousínov, it was actually from Kyjov (or at least would be performed in that style). He also called Sušil's collection the "bible" of Moravian folk song. In many respects this is true: the collection is still revered by many performers and scholars today, is still the most comprehensive published work notating such songs, and is still in print 170 years after its initial release in the 1830s.