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Janácek: The Cunning Little Vixen cast below Kühn Children's Choir, Czech Philharmonic Chorus and Orchestra Václav Neumann  Supraphon 10 3471-2 (2 disc set)

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Magdaléna Hajóssyová (soprano) Vixen
Gabriela Benacková (mezzo soprano) Fox
Richard Novák (bass) Forester
Helena Buldrová (soprano) His wife
Miroslav Frydlewicz (tenor) Schoolmaster
Karel Prusa (bass) Parson

Kühn Children's Choir, Czech Philharmonic Chorus and Orchestra Václav Neumann

Janácek's instinct and sympathy for rural life comes most clearly into focus with The Cunning Little Vixen (Brno, 1924), in which he transformed a newspaper cartoon strip into an affirmation of the cycle of life. Of course the rustic characters and the various animals and birds, who together comprise the cast list, afford splendid opportunities for designers. But the music is inspired too, in particular the glorious sunrise sequence and the moving conclusion in which the young vixen appears and succeeds her dead mother, thus confirming the renewal of life.

Along with Jenufå, this is probably the most widely known of Janácek's operas, and it has been well served by four recordings. Bohumil Gregor's account with the forces of the Prague National Theatre, well recorded by Supraphon in 1970, has all the freshness and vitality of a live performance, while the famous Charles Mackerras-Vienna Philharmonic version on Decca (1981) has been firmly established in the catalogue ever since its release. Of equal interest is the version conducted by Simon Rattle for EMI (1992) with the forces of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and sung in English.

Václav Neumann's recording with the Czech Philharmonic and an all-Czech cast dates from 1979, during his extended tenure as chief conductor. He is better known for his recorded legacy as a conductor of the concert repertory, but the keen sense of ensemble achieved here by the idiomatic Czech forces owes much to his direction. The recording is nicely balanced if without quite the sheer impact of the EMI and Decca versions, but there are compensations in abundance, largely because the Czech singers bring such sensitivity to the text, working very much as a team.

One of Janácek's greatest achievements in this opera is the fusion of dramatic pacing with atmospheric musical invention, and in the latter sense especially the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra can be heard at the top of its form. Sometimes, in fact, the orchestra takes 'centre stage', rather than the singers. Therefore the performance is at its most successful during those scenes such as the sunrise, when the music naturally explores this priority.

With a total playing time of less than 100 minutes, this two-disc set is less imaginatively compiled than its EMI and Decca rivals, which offer extra orchestral items. But the accompanying booklet is one of the best Supraphon have compiled, including an introductory essay, a scene-by-scene summary and a well organised libretto with full translations. There is much to commend this issue.


Terry Barfoot


Terry Barfoot

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