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Leoš JANÁČEK (1854–1928):
The Eternal Gospel, Legend for soprano, tenor, chorus and orchestra (1913) [18.45]
The Ballad of Blaník (1919) [8.02]
The Fiddler’s Child, Ballad for solo violin and orchestra (1913) [11.46]
The Excursions of Mr Brouček, Suite for orchestra (1908-17) [20.58]
Gwyneth-Ann Jeffers (soprano: Angel), Adrian Thompson (tenor: Joachim of Fiore), Edinburgh Festival Chorus (The Eternal Gospel) - sung in Czech
Elizabeth Layton (violin) (The Fiddler’s Child)
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Ilan Volkov
rec. 5-6 June 2004 and 7–8 January 2005, Caird Hall, Dundee. DDD.
HYPERION CDA 67517 [59.54]

There are several reasons to give this disc an unqualified welcome. All Janáček fans should be acquiring it without delay, and those as yet unconverted should seriously consider it. Sixty minutes may be slightly short measure for some but it is quality all the way.

My understanding of Janáček’s output is more biased towards his symphonic and choral output. Anyone with a similar understanding can rejoice in the presentation of three lesser-known works - this is the first reason for welcome. The Eternal Gospel stands with ease alongside the Glagolitic Mass in terms of impact and form, as The Ballad of Blaník might alongside Taras Bulba and The Fiddler’s Child alongside the Concertino. Operatic Janáčekians have the prospect of the orchestral suite from the deeply wacky The Excursions of Mr Brouček for entertainment – and boy is it entertaining!

The common thread here is the spirit of Czech nationalism that Janáček with which imbued each of the works, and Nigel Simeone’s booklet note brings out the salient points readily enough.

The second reason is undoubtedly the performance that each work receives.

The Eternal Gospel opens things with tremendous presence, strong - though not overly so - in the strings and brass. It carries the feeling of a stage work beginning in media res though within the gravitas of a timeless frame – a statement of the eternal, which is of course what Janáček was after. Much of the sung duration falls to Adrian Thompson as Joachim of Fiore and his slightly piquant tenor catches the edge present in Janáček’s vocal line, though that is not to suggest anything distasteful in the execution. Gwyneth-Ann Jeffers’ part may not be as large but dramatically it is important, and is delivered with assurance and in full-toned voice. The contribution of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus registers keenly too through impressive vocal weight and texturing, though perhaps, as with the soloists, it might lack slightly the instinctive linguistic response of a Czech choir.

A great mini tone poem is how I would characterise The Ballad of Blaník. The heft and hue of the orchestra reign free under Volkov’s spirited direction, which is the case throughout and, surely Volkov is the third reason to investigate this release. It’s amazing to think that this is Volkov’s first commercial release, such has been the assiduousness with which the BBC have recorded him and the BBCSSO in recent years. Talented undoubtedly beyond his years (29) his music-making has about it the wide-eyed wonder of youth; long may this blissful union remain in place, so rarely does it happen. To my mind it is precisely this union of qualities that any performance of Brouček needs. Other qualities that make this particularly memorable are Volkov’s keen ear for orchestral sonority in Moon Waltz and the contrast inherent in The Song of the Hussites. I am sure it is Volkov’s youth that gives much of the fire he finds within the internal dynamics and pacing of the works.

Of all the works included here the most haunting is The Fiddler’s Child, with the orchestra’s leader Elizabeth Layton stepping forward for the solo part. Having read the story upon which the ballad was based prior to hearing it, I found it all nigh impossible not to feel anguish for the poor child. Layton’s delivery, like Volkov’s, is both artful and direct to befit a tale of such seriousness.

The fourth reason is Hyperion themselves. Through much publicised difficulties of late they continue to offer recordings that maintain high production standards, promote genuine talent and challenge the serious listener in repertoire of real worth; if that doesn’t deserve support, what does?

Evan Dickerson



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