Leoš Janáček (1854–1928) was probably born half a century too early. It wasn't until well into the second decade of the twentieth century that his mature voice emerged and by then he had barely 10 years to live. The song cycle Diary of One Who Disappeared (1917–19) is the beginning of this extraordinary final decade of composition and in performing it, I am constantly astonished at the audacity of its musical invention and freshness of its language.
Music's great late-starter here gives us a collaged series of 22 song-fragments almost entirely without traditional development, methods of repetition or logical sequences. The piece is thus in a constant 'present tense': immediate, electric and desperately communicative. Janáček seems content to trace the simple story of Janik's obsession with Zefka in densely-packed musical shards of experience, as if we are listening to a story told in constant cinematic cross-cut. Conflicting thoughts and emotions are part and parcel of this language and the voices and piano are forced into the service of a new kind of music drama. There is some very strange piano writing in particular that shows Janáček straining at the limits of the instrument to produce attack and resonance effects far beyond the accepted sound of early 20th century pianism. The tenor part requires a voice capable of real lyric singing as well as rhythmic exactitude, an enormous range and the ability to toss off the Czech language almost as a percussive effect. The mysterious Zefka is given a 'backing chorus' of three offstage female voices that define the slow, dreamlike middle part of the piece and drive its sense of time to stasis. The centre of the cycle is an extended dramatic piano solo which seems to articulate all manner of hidden desires in a series of juddering rhythms, snatches of half-remembered melody and stark silences.