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Leoš JANÁČEK (1854–1928)
Orchestral Suites from the Operas - Vol. 1
Jenůfa – Suite* (arr. Peter Breiner) [31:06]
The Excursions of Mr Brouček –Suite (1918) (arr. Peter Breiner) [39:01]
Vesa-Matti Leppanen (violin)*

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra/Peter Breiner
rec. Wellington Town Hall, New Zealand, 28 May-1 June 2007
NAXOS 8.570555 [70:20]

Experience Classicsonline

Janáček’s operas have become recognised as some of the finest of the 20th century, and his reputation is more often than not enhanced by each new production that hits the boards or the recorded catalogue. We’ve recently been treated to a fine recording of The Excursions of Mr Brouček, and my reference for Jenůfa is the venerable 1977-78 Supraphon recording with the Brno Janáček Opera forces under František Jílek.

The best known of Janáček’s ‘suites from the opera’ would have to be that of the Cunning Little Vixen, which, as well as From the House of the Dead was also arranged into a suite by František Jílek, but has appeared most frequently in a re-orchestration by Vacláv Talich. Significantly in this context, Sir Charles Mackerras returned to the original for his own recording, and in the same way Peter Breiner’s impressive arrangements also have to stand up against Janáček’s own orchestral sound.

Without a comparison of the scores it’s not a straightforward business, untangling differences between originals and arrangements in detail, and I don’t propose to make the attempt here. It may partially be due to differences in modern recording, ideal concert hall conditions rather than the ‘Opera house’ situation, or at the very least a recording set up which no longer has to take a variety of singers into consideration, but these suites sound more sumptuous and grand than anything I’ve heard from these pieces in the past. Janáček’s own orchestral palette in both of these operas is rich and full of fascinating colour and variety, and Breiner takes all of this on board. Take something like Are you feeling sad, Jenůfa however, and there is none of the restless urgency of that opening as you hear it from Jílek. Much as I admire the playing and sound, this is a rather well-fed Jenůfa, and there are few places here where the tragic drama of the opera isn’t covered with some kind of glitzy, sometimes almost Hollywood gloss.

The same comments apply to Brouček. You only have to compare the magical twists, turns and quicksilver contrasts of the opening under the baton of Jiří Bělohlávek with the rather more thick and ponderous tread of the same passages with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. Agreed, we’re not entirely comparing like with like, and as concert suites rather than accompaniments to stage drama these arrangements work very well indeed. I like the creative and convincing way Breiner has brought sometimes disparate material together to create new movements. These arrangements and performances do however paint a rather different picture of Janáček’s operas than the one you might hope to hear in an opera production.

Some collectors of recorded music may not have much time for warbling opera singers on CD, and will be missing some wonderful music as a result. Suites like these can release fine compositional work from their dramatic context and win new audiences as a result. For this I applaud Peter Breiner for his work on these two operas, and will certainly be on the lookout for subsequent volumes. For me, the big-boned symphonic approach does remove some of the intimacy and excitement of Janáček’s works as original operas, and I think I would have preferred a little more lightness of touch and swiftness of pacing to help bring this feeling back. This said, these are fine performances and stunningly dynamic recordings, with some fine low drum rumbles and plenty of sparkle and colour in the spectrum. If you know and love the operas already this disc probably won’t further enhance your appreciation, but if you want some refreshingly new orchestral music and an alternative view on Janáček then this is a very strong contender indeed.

Dominy Clements


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