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Seen & Heard
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Leos JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
Glagolitic Mass (1927) [39:30]
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, op. 60, (1920) [36:46]
Sheila Armstrong (soprano), Ameral
Gunson (mezzo), Robert Tear (tenor), William
London Philharmonic Choir & Orchestra/Klaus Tennstedt
rec. Royal Festival Hall, London 12 May 1985 (Janáček), 4 May 1986 (Strauss)
BBC LEGENDS BBCL 4208-2 [76:16]
Ever since Klaus Tennstedt’s
untimely death in 1998 there has been a steady trickle of
live recordings on BBC Legends and the London Philharmonic
Orchestra’s own LPO label, not to mention an indispensable
EMI DVD of Mahler’s 1st and 8th Symphonies with the Chicago
Symphony Orchestra and LPO respectively.
latest Legends disc finds Tennstedt and the LPO on less familiar
ground, certainly as far as the Janáček is concerned.
Perhaps it’s not surprising the results are mixed - to say
The Glagolitic Mass had
a long gestation. Janáček started work on a mass for
chorus and organ as early as 1907-8 but put it aside and
returned to it in 1926, using it as the basis for an orchestral
mass. He eventually produced a full score but revised it
twice, with the result that the 1907-8 contributions were
much reduced. Janáček finished the final score at the
end of December 1926 and seemed to lose interest in it until
May 1927, when the premiere was mooted for December that
year. Janáček revised the score yet again and produced
a second authorised version but was forced to make changes
to suit his provincial players. More unauthorised alterations
were made when the score was published after Janáček’s
death in 1929.
Like most conductors Tennstedt
opts for the traditional, revised version of the score, with
the opening Úvod rather than the Intrada that
begins (and ends) the original one.* The brass blaze out
clearly enough here but it is the articulation of this movement
that seems to cause the most problems for conductor and players.
It is music that can so easily lapse into muddle and bloat – as
indeed it does here – and the boxy recording doesn’t help.
descending basses and growling brass at the start of the Kyrie merely
confirm the initial impressions of a lack of focus at the
bottom end of the spectrum, although at the top the women’s
prayerful repetitions of ‘Gospodi pomiluj’ are well
caught, as are Sheila Armstrong’s soaring soprano lines.
Unfortunately the muffled timpani spoil the music’s more
serene closing bars.
surging rhythms of the Gloria need to be much more
urgent and better articulated than they are here if the mood
of heightened ecstasy is to be achieved. Mezzo Ameral Gunson
sings authoritatively enough – she sings the part on Sir
Simon Rattle’s earlier CBSO recording for EMI – while tenor
Robert Tear sounds suitably transported in his solo, punctuated
as it is by some febrile singing from the choir. The cascading ‘Amens’ are
well done though, caught between a halo of brass and the
low thunder of the organ. This is Janáček at his most
transported; thrilling stuff.
The Credo has
some splendid contributions from soloists and choir, though
the ripple of harps barely registers. Here one really needs
more transparency if the many felicities of Janáček’s
spiky orchestration are to be heard. Don’t forget this is
the central movement of the work and, in terms of the mass
setting itself, the central all-important statement of belief.
Janáček creates a rising spiral of tension but Tennstedt
and the LPO really struggle to propel the music forwards
and upwards. For their part Tear, Shimell and the chorus
do achieve a certain frisson at the close with their
transported ‘Amens’, but this just isn’t enough to
salvage the movement as a whole.
if this weren’t mountain enough to climb, the opening bars
of the gently rocking Sanctus are sabotaged by a distracting
cough from the audience. That said the performance has pretty
much lost its way by now and despite the heroic efforts of
the singers the Sanctus never really gets off the
ground. Ditto the Agnus Dei, crowned though it is
by some splendidly incisive singing from the chorus.
While it is interesting
to hear Tennstedt perform something other than Beethoven,
Mahler or Wagner, Janáček simply does not play to his
strengths; the Strauss most certainly does.
Bürger als Edelmann is a strange
beast. In 1911 Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal
decided to combine the composer’s next opera, Ariadne
auf Naxos, with spoken theatre based on the text of
Molière’s play Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (1670).
This ‘preface’, for which Strauss provided the music, didn’t
work on the night, so he recast the music as a suite, first
performed in 1920.
delightful piece, winningly played by the LPO, finds the
composer in neo-classical mode, ripe Romanticism expertly
blended with the more formal elegance of courtly dances.
This is the Strauss of the late, lyrical operas – Capriccio and Der
Rosenkavalier spring to mind – and the warm, expansive
recording certainly suits the score.
affection for this music is evident from the outset with
an effervescent Ouverture, nicely articulated and recorded
with all the transparency and colour so lacking in the Janáček.
The music positively glows, with some glorious tunes for
the brass. The two minuets and the courante are nicely sprung
and played with a judicious mix of grace and gravitas, while
the Fencing Master is portrayed with self-important swagger.
The Dance of the Tailors has a more festive air and some
delectable horn playing to boot but as the suite progresses
it becomes all too obvious why the conceit failed in the
theatre; this is just too substantial an hors d’œuvre, given
that the main course, Ariadne, has still to follow.
you must hear Tennstedt, warts and all, this issue is self-recommending,
but if you want a more cogent and thrilling performance of
the Glagolitic Mass you must look elsewhere. Rattle’s
much-lauded CBSO account is well worth hearing, notably for
its rich, sumptuous recording (EMI
Great Recordings of the Century 5669802). For something altogether more astringent,
more authentically Slavonic, go for Karel Ančerl and
the Czech Philharmonic. The recording dates from 1964 so
the sound is typically coarse but this just adds to the raw
excitement of the performance (Karel Ančerl Gold Edition,
Volume 7, Supraphon SU36672).
conductors use the revised version of the score so if you
want Janáček’s original thoughts you will need to investigate
Sir Charles Mackerras’s Danish National Radio recording (Chandos
CHAN9310). Unfortunately it is a curiously lacklustre performance
that really doesn’t show the original score to its best advantage.
For that you will need to invest in the 1996 DVD of Sir Charles
and the Czech Philharmonic in blazing form, combining the
mass with excellent accounts of Jealousy and Taras
Bulba (Supraphon SU70099).
The notes themselves are rather basic and not
that legible. As most of us don’t have 20/20 vision any more
it would really help if recording companies tried a little
harder when it comes to choice and size of font for their
booklets. Chandos and MDG do a much better job in this respect,
so it can be done.
The Janáček is hardly
an indispensable addition to Tennstedt’s recorded legacy
but the Strauss is as genial and elegant a reading as you
are likely to find. It is certainly the more successful item
on this disc but neither work shows Tennstedt at his considerable
Wingfield’s excellent book on the genesis of the mass and
his reconstruction of the ‘ideal’ version of the score is
mandatory reading for all Janáček enthusiasts.
Glagolitic Mass, Cambridge
Music Handbooks, Cambridge University Press, 1992. ISBN 0
521 38901 1.
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