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Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
Otcenáš (The Lord’s Prayer) (1906) [16’08"]
Ave Maria (1904) [5’20"]
Elegie on the death of daughter Olga (1903-04) [7’27"]
Exaudi Deus (1875) [1’33"]
Chorale Fantasie (organ) [7’30"]
Zdrávas Maria (Ave Maria) [4’04"]
Constitues (1903) [1’56"]
Veni Sancte Spiritus [2’18"]
Varyto (organ) [4’00"]
Mass after Liszt’s Messe pour orgue (1901) [16’34"]
Andrew Carwood (tenor)
Clive Driskill-Smith (organ, piano)
Aline Nassif (violin)
Victoria Davies (harp)
Christ Church Cathedral Choir, Oxford/Stephen Darlington
Recorded: Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, May 2003 DDD
GRIFFIN GCCD 4042 [66’57"]

 

This interesting CD sheds light on an aspect of Janáček’s creative output that may be unfamiliar to many collectors, as it was to me. Vocal music was very much in his blood and, especially in his earlier years, he conducted a number of amateur and student choirs, for which much of the music included here would have been written.

A perfect example is his reworking of Liszt’s Messe pour orgue. Janáček added vocal texts from the Ordinary of the Mass to fit Liszt’s organ music to enable the choir of Brno Gymnasium, which he conducted at the time, to sing this as a mass setting. It seems that he altered virtually none of Liszt’s original music though he did have to do some re-working of the actual text in order to make it fit. The result is an interesting if not desperately original mass setting. At just over 16 minutes duration it is, effectively, a Missa Brevis and it would be a useful addition to the repertoire of church choirs, I would think.

The recital includes two pieces for solo organ, reminding us that Janáček himself studied the instrument. Both of these pieces are described in the notes as “early” works though no composition dates are given. In both cases I was struck by the evident influence of Bach. Clive Driskell-Smith, the Sub-Organist of Christ Church Cathedral, plays both very convincingly.

The remainder of the programme is vocal and ranges from a very early Exaudi Deus, a conventional but pleasing miniature for unaccompanied mixed chorus, to a group of works written in the first decade of the twentieth century. The two settings of Ave Maria are interesting. The 1904 piece sets a Czech translation of the original Latin prayer. According to the notes the work was conceived for soprano solo, violin, organ and choir. Here, however, the keyboard part is played on a piano and the vocal solo is taken by tenor, Andrew Carwood. I mean no disrespect to Carwood when I say that I would have preferred a soprano here for the tenor voice is, almost by definition, more forceful than that of a soprano and I think a gentler vocal style would have suited the music better. The other Ave Maria is in fact not the conventional prayer but a setting of lines from Byron’s Don Juan. This piece, for male voice choir, is an eloquent little piece and is well done here.

Tracks 7 and 8 are two brief settings of texts from Catholic liturgy. Constitues is the Offertory prayer from the Mass of the feast of Saints Peter and Paul. It is written for men’s voices and organ. Its counterpart, Veni Sancte Spiritus, is an antiphon to the Holy Spirit for male voices a cappella, which features some intriguing harmonies. Here I must part company with the notes by the composer and expert on eastern European music, Ivan Moody who describes Veni Sancte Spiritus as "more bombastically march-like in character than Constitues." I just don’t hear this at all. Veni Sancte Spiritus is set here as a rather subdued invocation. Since Moody is usually so authoritative in such matters I wonder if this is down to an editing lapse? These two short works include some challenging writing for the singers, especially the tenors, but the choir copes admirably.

The CD contains two especially interesting pieces. The Elegie was written as a direct response to the death from typhoid of Janáček’s own daughter. Unsurprisingly, the piece, which is scored for solo tenor, chorus and piano, is deeply felt and poignant. Ivan Moody describes it as “haunting” and this is an apt choice of words. In this piece I felt that the tessitura of the solo line lay more kindly for Andrew Carwood than in the other pieces to which he contributes. Janáček’s solo vocal lines were ever demanding and this trait is evident even in the small, early pieces recorded on this disc. Elsewhere in the programme Carwood sounds strained at times but in this Elegie he is shown to best advantage. The piano accompaniment to this piece is sensitively played by Clive Driskell-Smith.

For me the most inventive work in the recital is Otcenáš. This is an extended setting of the Lord’s Prayer in six short sections. One of its most striking features is the accompaniment for organ and harp. This scoring is surprisingly atmospheric and the instruments complement each other beautifully. Much of the setting is fairly reflective in tone but the fourth section features some energetic writing for the choir and the final section opens with a strong organ passage after which the choral part builds to a vigorous Amen. This is a most interesting work, to which I shall probably return more often than anything else in the programme.

The performances are of a very high standard (all those involved have some past or present connection to Christ Church.) The sound is very good and the notes, though succinct are generally very informative and interesting. Texts and translations are provided. This is an enterprising release, which expertly illuminates a less prominent but worthwhile area of Janáček’s output.

John Quinn



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