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Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)

The Cunning Little Vixen

The Forester (bass) Richard Novák
His Wife-The Owl (soprano) Helena Buldrova
The Parson-The Badger (bass) Karel Pruša
Bystrouska, The Cunning Little Vixen (soprano) Magdelena Hajossyová
Goldskin, the Fox (soprano) Gabriel Benačkova-Capová

The Woodpecker (contralto) Marie Mrazová
Czech Philharmonic Chorus and Orchestra
Váčlav Neumann
Recorded at the Dvořák Hall, Prague, 18 December-26 June, 1980 AAD

SUPRAPHON 10 3471-2 [2 Discs, 45.19, 50.21]


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Most opera guides will tell you that this is the place for newcomers to Janáček to start. It’s easy to see why; it is in some measure his most sunny and tuneful stage work, and the story is so delightful on one level, so deep and meaningful on the other, that it literally offers something for everyone. Legend has it that Janáček was first alerted to the comic-strip, on which it is based, by his housekeeper laughing out loud as she followed it in their daily newspaper. Much of that humour is intact in his adaptation, but there is a much more profound layer (to be expected from a great work of art) that transcends the forgotten cartoon origins.

The Supraphon Janáček opera series has always been a mainstay of the catalogue (some better than others), but over the last few years has all but been eclipsed by the Decca series under Mackerras. This is a shame, as these totally idiomatic performances have much to offer. In the present case, the conducting of Váčlav Neumann (continuing the great tradition of Talich and Ančerl), a home grown cast who characterise their parts as strongly as any, and to cap it all, the contribution of the marvellous Czech Philharmonic, one of the world’s top orchestras playing to the manner born. Mind you, Mackerras does have the Vienna Phil., also on top form, and a truly state-of-the-art recording to bring out every nuance in the textures. This Supraphon issue is not quite in that league, but as Czech analogue recordings go, it’s pretty good.

I particularly liked the central performances here, with Richard Novák providing a warmly sympathetic portrayal of the Forester (or Gamekeeper, as he is sometimes referred to). His resolutely unsentimental approach is welcome, and one can hear the seventy-year-old composer himself speaking through this character when he sleepily utters the line “men and women will walk with heads bowed, and realise that a more-than-earthly joy has passed that way”. As this is late Janáček, the presence of his muse, Kamila Stosslová, was inevitable, and she is transmogrified into the resourceful vulpine wife and mother (the Vixen herself), a part well taken here by Magdelena Hajossyová. All the other parts are nicely characterised, and the folk-like element in the score, always present in Janáček but a major influence here, is well understood by Neumann. The piece constantly shifts between opera, ballet, mime and substantial orchestral interludes, and this recording captures the bloom of the orchestra very well indeed. There is an earlier Supraphon Vixen, conducted by Bohumil Gregor, but I doubt if it is any better than this set, which appears to have everyone on top form. The marvellous Czech Phil. string section revel in the predominance given to them by the composer, and the typically quirky and idiosyncratic woodwind writing is beautifully shaped.

I can only echo my opening line, and advise anyone who is not familiar with Janáček opera to get this set. You will be entertained and moved in equal measure, and the ‘cycle of life’ inevitability will linger in the memory. Not for nothing did the composer want the final scene to be played at his funeral (which indeed it was), and the listener can share in what is one of his finest inspirations. Recommended.

Tony Haywood

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