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Mša Glagolskaja & Vecné evangelium
(Glagolitic Mass & The Eternal Gospel)
Eva Drizgová (sop) Hana Štolfová-Bandová (cont) Vladimir Dolezal (ten) Jiri Sulzenko (bass) Martin Jakubiek (org) Czech Symphony Orchestra of Brno, Leos Svárovský
Ultraphon re-released on Arcodiva UP 0011 2231, 62’21,


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It is one of the ironies of Janácek’s Glagolitic Mass that so many previous recordings have been under Western conductors and Western orchestras. With recordings by Bernstein, Rattle, Mackerras and Kempe to compete with authentic interpretations by Ancerl, Kubelik and Neumann the choice has always been a remarkably wide one.

Although the Mass seems straightforward by Janácek’s standards it can, and should, generate enormous excitement – both in concert and on record. Its popularity is, therefore, easy to define. After listening to this new recording, however, I am more convinced than ever that two distinct impressions are now at the forefront of Janácek interpretation. The first, is that no matter how successful some Western conductors have been in presenting the glories of this work in graphic relief (and both Rattle and Mackerras achieve remarkable feats) their weaknesses derive from their inability to absorb the truly Czech nature of the work. It is impossible to emphasise how important a native Czech choir and soloists are to the success of the work (Rattle’s soloists are all British, for example). The second, is that the work needs state of the art sound if it is achieve anything near its true effect. For this reason, the Ancerl performance is now so historical as to be out of the running (it is, in any event, deleted from the catalogue). One of the problems with Neumann’s reading is the poor ensemble (even though it is the Czech Philharmonic on the podium), although the forward momentum of the performance can never be in any doubt.

Another problem will depend on how complete you want your Glagolitic Mass to be. It is generally considered that the revisions to the Original score suppress much of the works dramatic power. The original Uvod, for example, generates considerably more tension than the published version. The rhythmic changes in Gospodi can sully the relationship between the music and the words – it is no longer the case that the rhythmic alterations are impossible for choirs to sing (the original 5/4 phrasing is now within grasp of all modern choirs). In Raspet the thrill of tripled timpani must now be preferred to the simplified single timpani and it makes more focused the broadening of the piccolo, brass and timpani motive. The off stage clarinets in Veruju have now been restored – and in any case would not be problematical in the recording studio. More controversially is the placing of the Intrada at the beginning of the work as well as after the organ solo. Mackerras’ second recording of the work, with Danish forces on Chandos [CHAN 9310 Crotchet] does place the Intrada at both the work’s opening and closing moments. The Ultraphon recording, whilst incorporating some of the Wingfield revisions, does not place the Intrada first at all, only at the work’s close. The booklet note states, ‘…we find not a single hint in any of the sources that would suggest that this corresponded to Janácek’s own intentions.’ My own view is that, dramaturgically, the Intrada only works at the Mass’s close.

Svárovský’s new recording is in every way a thrilling performance of the Glagolitic Mass. Not only are the great orchestral interludes beautifully played, but there is a symbiotic relationship between them and the great choral sections. A successful recording of this thrilling work rests entirely or otherwise on the four soloists. Vladimir Dolezal is a virile and heroic tenor (after his entry in the Slava the performance becomes incredibly taut). The voice rings like the clearest bell. Eva Drízgová produces a searing tone, bright like gilt, although without perhaps the striking individuality of expression that Felicity Palmer brings to Rattle’s version. In terms of diction, which is so important in this work, Drízgová is well ahead of her rivals – even Mackerras’ otherwise outstanding Elizabeth Söderström on his first recording. Where the performance comes out strongest is in the chorus’ perfect synchronicity with the orchestral interludes. This is one reason why Rattle’s performance is ultimately unsatisfactory.

If there is a mild disappointment with this new release it is the recording given to the organ solo which seems slightly recessed. Generally, however, this new recording can stand in the same illustrious company as Mackerras I and II and, for many, might be a first choice given the spacious and dramatic engineering on this disc.

The coupling is an intensely moving performance of  Vecné evangelium - The Eternal Gospel. There has previously been only one recording of this twenty minute work, by the Czech Symphony Orchestra under Pinkas (previously on Supraphon but now deleted) so this new recording is your only opportunity to hear it. Compared to Janácek's other choral works, The Eternal Gospel is not based on religious texts (such as the Mass) and nor does it tell a story, as does, for example, the cantata Amarus. Written in 1914 (before the outbreak of the First World War, but clearly influenced by the events leading up to it), the work is a legend based on the 12th century visionary Joachim of Fiore who preached his eternal gospel of universal love ; in style, however, and perhaps again influenced by impending war, the piece looks forward to some of Janácek's later works, notably the opera From the House of the Dead.

That opera's sparse, almost naked scoring, owes something to the very opening movement of The Eternal Gospel. Here we have a solo violin emerging almost imperceptibly from low strings with only the slightest use of brass to brighten the tone. It has an eeriness which almost defies the movement's description of 'attacca'. The most extraordinary movement, however, is the third (and longest) which more than a little resembles Prokofiev's startling cantata Alexander Nevsky, not least the soprano lament From the Field of the Dead. Here Drízgova's bright soprano voice is evocatively set against the burnished tenor of Vladimir Dolezal. The entry of the chorus for the Allelujah is a moment of pure exultation, the great brass chorales acting as a contrast to the high, figurative sopranos emerging from the choir.

The booklet note, whilst giving us a translation of the text of The Eternal Gospel (none for the Mass, however) does not divide the movements into soprano, tenor or choral roles, despite the fact that each movement contains elements of each. It is a drawback - but not as serious as the booklet's general reluctance to give us any information at all about the performance versions used in this recording.

Mackerras' second recording of the Glagolitic Mass has as its coupling Kodaly's Hungarian Psalm, a fine performance to accompany his world premiere recording of the original version of the Mass. This new Ultraphon recording offers a rare performance of one of Janácek's unknown glories and this will probably make it the first choice for many. Despite the problems many will have in hunting it down, it offers authentic, dramatic performances in outstanding sound. Highly recommended.

Marc Bridle

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