When Martina Janková was a little girl growing up in northern Moravia, she started singing at the age of four with Kotci, a village dulcimer band. The band rehearsed in the house next door to Jankováʾs grandmother in Frýdlant nad Ostravicí, where she spent her summers. After hearing the precocious visitor improvising what Janková describes as “my own wild, highly coloratura compositions” they invited her to join the rehearsals, and soon she was appearing with the group at local festivals.

Martina Janková © Zdenek Chrapek
Martina Janková
© Zdenek Chrapek

The experience gave Janková a deep knowledge of, and affection for, Moravian folk songs. It was not until many years later that she learned Frýdlant nad Ostravicí had been one of the villages visited by Leoš Janáček when he was collecting the folk music that became the basis of many of his compositions. By then, Janková had gone on to a brilliant career as an operatic soprano, joining the company at the Zurich Opera House, becoming a regular at the Salzburg Festival and, most recently, making her La Scala debut in a period performance of Handelʼs oratorio The Triumph of Time and Truth.

Last year, Janková finally found the time to revisit her Moravian roots with “Janáček Moravian Folk Songs”, a CD released on Supraphon. Joined by two musicians who share her Moravian background, pianist Ivo Kahánek and baritone Tomáš Král, Janková resurrected the simple beauty of 51 short songs, capturing their poetic quality, charm and wisdom about life, love and the human experience. All of which makes it a perfect project for Prague Spring. But at her recital to open the festivalʾs chamber music weekend, Janková went beyond reprising the disc. She expanded the program to include folk-derived music from Germany (Brahms), Spain (de Falla), France (Cantaloube), Italy (Respighi) and Switzerland (traditional folk songs). Her goal was to show the universality of folk music in national and musical identity, transcending time and political borders.

Janková has an engaging voice, a shade dark for a soprano with a natural vibrato and striking purity of tone. Befitting an opera singer, she brings color and character to everything she does, and this performance included a good dose of both – bright hues and agile embellishment in her vocals, gestures and dramatic flair in bringing to life characters ranging from pining lovers to a soldier and game warden.

With longtime accompanist Gérard Wyss providing lyrical support on piano, Janková reveled in the sheer joy and exuberance of the songs, imbuing even laments and broken-hearted memories with a sunny optimism. Without losing any technical qualities – precise diction, thoughtful phrasing, crystalline high notes – she gave herself over to the music, often swaying to the rhythm or melody, singing with high-spirited spontaneity. 

Yet there was a sameness to the sound – good for the theme, difficult for listeners trying to distinguish the rapid flow of songs and composers. The tenor of the pieces changed, but Jankováʾs approach did not. Throughout the recital, she sounded like a sophisticated opera singer bringing a serious focus to trifling material. The effect was disconcerting at first, like a mismatch of performer and program. It took some adjustment to get beyond the feeling shared by a Moravian member of the audience who recognized and appreciated the Janáček songs, but felt they didnʾt fit such a highly trained voice and treatment. 

In that sense the broad cross-cultural sampling may have been too much of a stretch, at least stylistically. Moravian music is in Jankováʾs blood, vivid and heartfelt no matter how she sings. Beyond that, her ideas had resonance but not much depth, at least in this performance. In keeping with the humble origins of the music, the satisfaction lay in its emotional honesty and the refreshing quality of her voice. 

Unrelated to the program, the concert was also a tribute to Jarmila Novotná, the Czech opera star of the mid-20th century. Novotná was a student of another Czech singing legend, Emmy Destinn. Though neither made an overt appearance in the program, the honorific was a reminder of the line that extends from Destinn through Novotná to Janková – a proud vocal tradition that, as Janková demonstrated, remains vibrant and strong.