> Leos Janacek [RB]: Classical CD Reviews- Aug 2002 MusicWeb(UK)






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If it’s the Czech works you’re after, do not hesitate

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett


Leoš JANACEK (1854-1928)
CD1
Sinfonietta (1924) [22.26]
Lachian Dances (1906) [20.32]
Taras Bulba (1928) [22.34]
CD2
The Cunning Little Vixen suite (1924) [16.28]
Jealousy prelude (1906) [5.39]
From The House of the Dead (1928) [6.02]
The Makropoulos Case (symphonic synthesis by Jose Serebrier) [31.02]
Czech State Philharmonic, Brno/José Serebrier
Rec: CD1: 2-5 Apr 1995; Brno CD2: rec 3-7 June 1996, Brno
originally issued as Reference Recordings RR-65CD and RR-75CD
REFERENCE RECORDINGS RR-2103 [65.08+59.40]

AVAILABILITY 

two CDs for the price of one: www.referencerecordings.com

How admirable that Reference Recordings (a firm associated with high-end sound quality) have embraced the less obvious repertoire. While Janáček is hardly obscure he remains outside the mainstream of concert seasons. It is notable that RR and Serebrier have recorded two volumes of orchestral Janáček and two volumes of orchestral Chadwick (the latter also recently repackaged as a two for the price of one item). May they continue their pursuit of the highest standards of hi-fi using the best of neglected music. I rather hope that they look at some of the orchestral works of Bax. A disc coupling Bax's Sixth Symphony and Winter Legends for piano and orchestra could be an absolute knockout both as an audio exhibition and as an complete artistic experience.

Taras and Sinfonietta have become a standard coupling ever since the LP days of Supraphon and Ančerl. So it has continued into the CD era, now approaching twenty years of age.

The competition in this sphere is hot. For those wishing to relive analogue splendours, Supraphon will soon have the original Ančerl coupling available in their Ančerl Golden Series and I am hoping to review that at some stage. In addition there are creditable recordings from Naxos, Chandos (Bĕlohlávek on CHAN 241-7), EMI Classics, DG, Decca (VPO/Mackerras) and a small host of alternatives from Supraphon including a historic coupling from Bakala and Jilek.

From the momentous rolling fanfares of Sinfonietta the sonorous trumpet choir are sharply placed on high in the aural landscape. The rest of the fruitily burred brass and the tetchily impatient woodwind also convey the impression of being recorded in a big space.

The Sinfonietta is one of those works that is a core 'must have' for any general classical collection. Slav without being Russian, exotic without being repugnant, optimistic without being puerile. Janáček's fanfares lodge firmly in the memory and are rivalled in his output only by those in the Glagolitic Mass. This recording, in particular, made me wonder whether Copland heard this work before writing Fanfare for the Common Man. The bass presence is remarkable but once again the great depth of the soundstage contributes to the poetics (track 3). This depth consolidates the sense of Martinů-like plangency. The brass are in resplendent form and their manic death-hunt whooping and barking at 3.51 (track 3) is an audio and musical highlight. This is amongst the finest of modern recordings and interpretations.

The Lachian Dances are, as a work, a disappointment by contrast. My first impressions of this work, formed by hearing an LP (Decca, 1971) recording conducted by François Huybrechts (whatever happened to him? Didn't he record Nielsen’s Espansiva as well?) are confirmed by the present disc. Low voltage stuff. The sound picture is just as impressive as for Sinfonietta but the music is so relaxed as to seem casual - almost ordinary. The dances are an addition to the Dvořák Slavonic Dances and Rhapsodies but truth to tell nowhere near as inspired. Highlights include a generous airborne horn section in the second dance and a sprinkling of rustic charm and jollity.

Taras is interesting as a piece and is well advocated by the artists. I was struck for the first time by the presence of the harmonium and also by the debt Copland seems again to have owed to Taras. The diffuse self-questioning of the first movement is followed by greater concentration in the second movement. Stabbing, angular, thrusting figures launch heroic contributions from the brass (notably trombones) in steady, deliberate, poised and pulsed heroism. The finale is resonates with the pealing of bells.

In Sinfonietta and Taras Reference have two works (especially the former) that are natural 'spectaculars'. You will go a long way to find a better recorded or interpreted big-sound version of these pieces. Sinfonietta bids fair to be the best available version. Taras is impressive but as a piece lacks the compelling invention of the Sinfonietta. As for the Dances they remain a chummy and relaxed make-weight: nice to have but not in themselves the stuff of compulsive acquisition.

For the second disc we get some 'pure' Janáček but the two big items are confections assembled by other hands: Talich/Smetaček and Serebrier. The Cunning Little Vixen opera is the most immediately beautiful of his works. The suite begins heavily with chattering and stabbing figures from the orchestra. This is much more successful than Taras Bulba for example. At 4.10 a superb violin dance played with a cogently watery tone by the concertmaster of the Czech State PO. The atmosphere speaks of magic and woodland pools before the first section ends in crashing tragedy. The second and final part leaves the Lachian Dances way behind with all their inconsequential innocence. There is a projection of great emotive power here familiar perhaps from Rimsky's Antar but with much more steel. This is a work of high and refined romance.

The two operatic suites sandwich two preludes however everything here derives from the operas. The atmosphere of the Jealousy prelude is of baying unrest as you might expect from the title. There are yelping horns (echoing Sinfonietta), a petulantly swirling violin solo, a trumpet section that is not just stratospheric but ionospheric, playfully complex eddies of romance and great clashing isobars of music. Do get to hear this music. The Prelude to In the House of the Dead is claustrophobically similar to Jealousy with the repeat fanfare at the end rumbling and tumbling in Straussian hysterics. It ends with a reminiscence of Sinfonietta.

Serebrier's ‘synthesis’ (a typical project for a Stokowski pupil) includes a dance of the grotesques and positively seethes with aural interest. The squealing violins toss and turn like oiled quicksilver. Barking horns bring the work to a reeling and clawing climactic closure.

Reference Recordings have a deserved reputation for big sound which conveys the poetry and subtlety of the quieter passages. That reputation is maintained and by this set. The selection of repertoire is slightly 'off-centre' … and very welcome too.

Eight pages of helpful booklet notes by Richard Freed in English only.

The only competition I am aware of is the Chandos twofer. This is very good but I prefer the Serebrier Sinfonietta which for me remain a top recommendation. Repertoire across the two sets is not identical.

If you missed the separate discs first time around then you have little excuse now when you can get both discs in a single width case for the price of one.

Rob Barnett


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