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Leoš JANÁČEK (1854 - 1928)
Glagolitic Mass
Taras Bulba

Libuse Domaninska (soprano)
Vera Soukupová (contralto)
Beno Blachut (tenor)
Eduard Haken (bass)
Jaroslav Vodrazka (organ)
Prague Philharmonic Choir
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Karel Ancerl
Recorded April 16-20, 1963 (Glagolitic Mass) and May 22-24, 1961 (Taras Bulba) in the Dvořák Hall of the Rudolfinum, Prague
Karel Ancerl Gold Edition - 7
SUPRAPHON SU 3667-2 911 [62.34]

The date of this recording, 1963, is indicative of the revival of interest in the 1960s in this tremendous, but problematic work. Ančerl’s performance is one to treasure and many people will have the original LPs. The work has appeared on CD before, but this fine re-mastering was done in 2002 for Supraphon’s Ančerl Edition. The resulting sound seems to have cleared up a few of the original problems with the recorded sound. The Glagolitic Mass is a tricky work to record and to balance. This performance is not ideally recorded, but the present re-mastering has made it more than acceptable.

Ančerl encourages his forces to give a performance of almost neurotic intensity. There is little feel for Janáček’s wide open spaces. This is very much a nervous, tense reading heightened by the Slavic cast of all the solo voices.

The Czech Philharmonic are on fine form and were recorded at a time when they were not only at their peak but also still made a distinctively Czech sound. The strings are very focused … almost wiry. It does not lack warmth but communicates the rather neurotic nature of Janáček’s orchestral writing. The strings are matched by the brass and woodwind, all of whom combine admirable flexibility with a distinctive tangy sound.

Unfortunately, the problems occur when the singers start. None of them is ideally relaxed in timbre. For the opening Kyrie, the soprano, Libuse Domaninska is suitably intense. But her strong tone with its distinctive vibrato means that she never really produces a relaxed sound and this is rather limiting. This lack of smooth focus in her voice shows again in the opening of the Gloria. The chorus make a fine, strong noise and generally give a committed performance. Their accuracy, though, does not always match the standard of the orchestra. Janáček’s writing, with its patchwork of motives and instrumental lines, means that the chorus have a number of tricky entries which are almost of a throwaway nature. Such moments include the Laudamus te in the Gloria, where the chorus remain committed but are distinctly untidy. Tenor, Beno Blachut, is strong if stentorian in the Qui sedes. This rather reflects his whole performance which is characterised by a strong vibrato and an unwillingness to sing quietly. But there again, Janáček’s writing for the tenor soloist can be pretty unforgiving.

Ančerl takes the opening of the Credo rather slower than I have been used to. Here Blachut comes into its own as he gives fine dramatic weight to his long solo. After a long build up in the orchestral interlude, the chorus’s Crucifixus is taken at a remarkably steady tempo – this is another of those rather tricky moments for the chorus. Rather unworthily, I wondered whether Ančerl had relaxed the tempo to make things a little easier for his singers. The subsequent passage stays at this steady tempo and I thought that the chorus rather lost intensity. But the final climax is tremendous.

In the opening of the Sanctus, the strain shows on the soloists as all of them have trouble producing a clean, smooth, quiet line. Bass Eduard Haken develops such a wide vibrato that it really ought to be called a wobble. Jaroslav Vodrazka gives a fine performance of the extensive organ part, but there were moments where I would dearly have liked more organ sound in the orchestral balance.

For all its problems, this is a tremendous performance that sweeps you away in its sheer commitment. Add to this the desirability of hearing this work performed by all-Czech forces and you have a very good reason for acquiring it. On this disc you also have the advantage of getting Ančerl’s fine recording of Taras Bulba, also dating from 1961. If the orchestral sound is not quite as warm as I would like, it suits Ančerl’s nervous tense reading.

This disc is unlikely to be your library choice, but its many virtues make it a desirable also-ran.

Robert Hugill


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