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Jakub Jan RYBA (1765-1815)

Czech Christmas Mass - Hej, mistre
My lovely Nightingale *
Jaroslava Vymazalova, soprano
Marie Mrazova, contralto
Benno Blachut, tenor
Zdenek Kroupa, bass
Helena Tattermuschova, soprano *
Jaroslav Josifko, flute *
Milan Slechta, organ
Jaroslav Vodrazka, organ *
Czech Philharmonic Chorus
Prague Symphony Orchestra/Vaclav Smetacek
Recorded 1965
SUPRAPHON SU36582 [42’59]
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Spend Christmas in Prague – a seasonal period which stretches from mid-November until well into January, judging by the concerts of Baroque Festive Masterpieces temptingly on offer in every church in the city – and you will doubtless be inveigled to a performance of Ryba’s Christmas Mass. The colloquialism of its name, Hej, mistre, or Hey, Master is a sure indication of the kind of work it is – a pastoral mass of charming tunefulness but decidedly unintellectual pretensions. The notes speculate that it became popular in the 1960s as a conciliatory sop by the government – intriguingly designated in the sleeve note as the then atheist regime (English translation, Communist). Certainly the score, whilst known, had remained pretty much ignored in the National Museum and it would fit the date of this recording – 1965, which is rather naughtily concealed from view on the case and booklet – you’ll have to investigate the CD itself for the information that this disc is now pushing forty years of age.

The portents for a lusty and triumphant performance are strong. Smetacek is the conductor; Blachut is the tenor; Marie Mrazova is contralto (well remembered from Mackerras’s Janacek opera recordings); Jaroslava Vymazalova, who had premiered Kapralova’s Op 18 songs Vteriny (Seconds) in Prague just after the War, is the soprano; the splendid bass is Zdenek Kroupa, beloved in Vienna. The Mass was composed in 1796 and written in the expected form of the Ordinary but, written in Czech and idiomatic and immediately understandable to its congregation; it is in fact a nativity. This was hardly a unique occurrence and Ryba had himself set Czech as a Mass as had other composers before him - but this did represent something of a consistent if small trend in late eighteenth century Bohemia. It’s doubly unfortunate therefore that no texts are provided in any language. Not helpful.

To the organ-dominated accompaniment in the Kyrie Blachut and Kroupa, whether singly or in unison, are liltingly joyous. Blachut is rather taxed at the top of his compass but he is, as ever, passionately commanding. Similarly Vymazalova and Mrazova, joined by Kroupa are richly communicative – accompanied as they are by some dancing and felicitous strings and flute. The sopranos from the Czech Philharmonic Chorus are characteristically high flying here – pitch maintained and stridently effective. Orchestral accompaniment to Blachut’s singing of the Graduale is vigorously bluff whilst there is an affectionate simplicity to the Credo, with Kroupa sounding distinctive and cavernous, like a Moravian Malcolm McEachern. Contemplative and soothing folk fiddles caress the Offertorium whilst the transition from the Sanctus to the Benedictus is seamless and persuasively pliant. Maybe the sopranos are strained by the demands of the Benedictus – simplicity doesn’t exclude demands – but the celebratory exchanges of the concluding moments, with organ, string and brass exchanges are bracing and resoundingly alive. The charming little Pastoral My Nightingale, winningly sung by Helena Tattermuschova, ends the disc.

Sound is still unimpeachable, notes are a little shaky – no texts – and at forty-three minutes you might well feel short-changed. It’s an intimate and affirmatory forty-three minutes though and splendidly performed. Superbudget price.

Jonathan Woolf


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