Dating from 1995/96 this Reference Recording double is lavished with a quite resplendent sounding recording, one that ensures that the Sinfonietta, in particular, sounds as magnificent, spatially and orchestrally, as it ever can have done on disc. The selection is well chosen, as well, mixing a staple coupling, the Sinfonietta and Taras Bulba, with a couple of Suites, one familiar, one Serebrier’s own and Operatic preludes that bring together material previously to be found on RR65 and RR75, recorded a year apart.
The superb sonorities of the Sinfonietta are more than done justice by the recording team and musicians. The sympathetic pairing of conductor and orchestra is clear – though the Czech State Philharmonic, Brno is so named here, one presumes, to make its country of origin unambiguous. It is more properly called the Statní filharmonie Brno or loosely the Brno Philharmonic Orchestra. Nevertheless one can hear the chattering lower brass in the opening Fanfare – something I’ve seldom, if ever, been able properly to notice and also Serebrier’s almost Beechamesque elegance of direction in their opening statements. This soon expands with martial splendour and amplitude before a second movement, The Castle, of natural flow and sustained weight of sonority. There is some truly elegant string phrasing in The Queen’s Monastery and fantastically whooping brass at 3’46 – once heard never forgotten – but despite this the overall impact is considerably less viscerally exciting than, say, Mackerras’ Vienna recording. The cumulative tension of the final movement, The Town, is splendidly maintained; if anything this is the most consistently impressive movement and in lesser conductor’s hands it can sag before the return of the Fanfares; not here. No performances have ever quite eclipsed the raw excitement of Kubelik’s immediate post-War recording of the Sinfonietta with the Czech Philharmonic or Bretislav Bakala’s 1953 traversal with the same orchestra, for once deserting his beloved Brno. The latter, in particular, who could often veer towards a sort of Moravian Golovanov – not a criticism in my book - is desperately exciting though the recording wears its years quite poorly in terms of sound quality. I urge interested readers to investigate the recordings of this elite Janácek pupil on Arlecchino ARL 115-116, an all Brno, barring the Sinfonietta, Janácek programme.
The Lachian Dances – considerably inferior to the cycles of Moravian dances he wrote for piano – suffer from long windedness and lack of melodic distinction, handicapped by uninvolved orchestrative potential. The first is especially culpable in these respects though the burbling and gurgling lower woodwind redeems No 2 and Starodávný is affectionately performed, replete with its tread of lugubrious melancholy. It’s a pity Janácek fell into the trap of vesting the final movement, Pilky, with a resolutely over dramatic profile and commensurate lack of elevated lyricism. In Taras Bulba Serebrier is consistently rather quicker than Mackerras and substantially faster than Zdenek Košler in his 1977 Czech Philharmonic performance and this is, I think, to the work’s advantage. There is a considerable degree of technical and organizational expertise on display here as Serebrier relates and delineates passages of apparently diffuse meaning into a comprehensively projected structure. The Death of Ostap is also graced by incidents of orchestral colour and vigour – those shuddering strings, those spitting trumpets, and rapacious percussion. Arguably he is not quite vicious and accusatory enough in the Prophecy and Death of Taras Bulba but this is very much a matter of degree; what’s unarguable is the sense of consonance he finds in the Suite and the means by which he and the orchestra convey it.
The second disc gives us two suites, the original, discarded prelude to Jenufa, and the magnificent prelude to maybe his operatic masterpiece, From the House of the Dead. The Cunning Little Vixen Suite is in the familiar Talich/Smetácek version. The Brno orchestra was apparently only familiar with the shortened Jílek version. The orchestration is suitably verdant, the slight hesitations at 3’20 before the orchestral outburst superb; this is a score flecked with solo violin and chattering, rather nasal woodwinds and pirouetting violin section. It also sports, in their hands, a magnificently sonorous aural climax. The operatic preludes are equally well done – Jealousy in particular has a declamatory and strident opening and a central section of barely veiled menace, with unsettled ostinato violins, characterized with fidelity by Serebrier and the Brno orchestra. As befits a protégé of the unparalleled master of Orchestral Synthesis, Leopold Stokowski, Serebrier’s Makropulos Case is an extensive, thoughtful and colourful exegesis full of incident and lasting fully half an hour.
With sonic values such as these and performances of such strength and vitality – as well as necessary imaginative intelligence – these are strongly recommended performances. Not all are front-runners – my allegiances in the Sinfonietta for reasons of imaginative nuance are ultimately unbreached – but all are tremendously committed and the Brno Philharmonic plays with devilish engagement. All credit to them, to Serebrier and Reference Recordings.