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Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
Sinfonietta (1926) [21’58]. Ballad of Blaník (1920) [7’51]. Fiddler’s Childa (1912) [11’43]. Taras Bulba (1915-18) [22’15].
aNils-Erik Sparf (violin); Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Andrew Davis.
Rec. Stockholm Concert Hall, Sweden, in November 1996. DDD
WARNER APEX 2564-60430-2 [64’21]


A speedy demotion to super-budget price here. Originally issued at full price late in 1998 on Finlandia 3984-21449-2, Sir Andrew’s Janáček collection is indeed a useful coupling: on paper, at least. The problem seems to be that this Scandinavian/English combination is just not close enough in spirit to the Czech heart of these works.

The Sinfonietta is one of Janáček’s most popular works, of course, and there are far more convincing readings available than this one: try Rattle on EMI (coupled with the great Glagolitic Mass on EMI Great Recordings of the Century CDM5 66980-2: see review) or Mackerras (on Double Decca 448 255-2). In Davis’s hands, the military-band inspired fanfares of the first movement are robust, but are lacking in true grit. Certainly things improve in the second movement, where Janáček’s characteristic ‘burbles’ take on a not inappropriate manic quality and the strings cope as well as can be expected with their screamingly high pyrotechnics. All five movements of the Sinfonietta are depictions of aspects of Janáček’s adoptive home town, Brno. The third, Moderato, is of the monastery there. Davis’ reading is commendable in its aching, yearning opening and rhythmic awareness. The fourth movement (the streets of Brno; or, if one is of an older generation, afternoon TV’s ‘Crown Court’!) does not in this account quite capture any atmosphere to speak of. A final movement that gets up a good head of steam is not really enough to redeem Davis’s conception, despite the low asking price.

It will be for the couplings, if anything, then, that one would want to buy this release. And there is indeed much rewarding material here. The Ballad of Blaník was written when the composer was concerned with the Czech National movement. Blaník is the resting place of St. Vaclav (Wenceslas) and his knights, where they sleep, ready to be reawakened by their people in direst need. Inspired by Czech independence after World War I and a version of the legend by Jaroslav Vrchlicky, what strikes one musically about this piece is its immediately more blended orchestral palette (there is significantly less use of juxtaposition than in the Sinfonietta, for example). It is a thoroughly enjoyable, predominantly lyrical work with an uplifting, invigorating end.

Fiddler’s Child represents the full emergence of Janáček’s mature compositional style. Short melodic units, clean orchestral textures make it sound immediately more modern after Ballad of Blaník. Its gestural world is extremely effective.

The ‘Slavonic rhapsody’, Taras Bulba, inspired by Gogol’s story of the same name, is one of Janáček’s masterpieces. Although Davis is better in the spectrally shifting first part, ‘The Death of Andri’, the performance is let down by the finale, ‘Prophesy and Death of Taras Bulba’. There is a gloss on the emotions which highlights Davis’ superficiality. Technically, the strings of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic sound ill at ease with Janáček’s high writing (and this composer does like it up there!). If the Sinfonietta is not top priority, maybe try Frantisek Jilek’s versions with the Brno State Philharmonic Orchestra on Supraphon of the other works to get closer to the spirit of this composer (SU1521-2).

Colin Clarke


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