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Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
Orchestral Suites from the Operas Vol. 2
Kát’a Kabanova
(1918/21) (Suite arr. Peter Breiner) [38:22]: (I. Overture [5:02]; II. Je cas, Tichone (Tichon, it's about time…) [6:03]; III. Vida, chvastala jsi se (There, you bragged…) [7:44]; IV. Intermezzo and Songs [8:15]; V. Prijde boure (The storm is coming) [11:06])
The Makropulos Affair (1923/25)* (Suite arr. Peter Breiner) [31:56]: (I. Smrt na mne sahala (Death was touching me) [3:04]; II. Causa Gregor Prus (The Gregor Prus Case) [6:06]; III. Zda se vamio divne, co? (It appears strange, doesn't it?) [4:56]; IV. Ja jsem totiz idiot (I am actually an idiot) [4:23]; V. A ja vas miluji! (Though I love you!) [7:01]; VI. Nu? (So?) [6:16])
Vesa-Matti Leppanen (violin)*
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra/Peter Breiner
rec. 28 May-1 June 2007, Wellington Town Hall, Wellington, New Zealand
NAXOS 8.570556 [69:56]
Experience Classicsonline

Suites are most successful when they focus on ballet and film, but do they work for opera? Berg’s Lulu Suite certainly does, but then it was conceived as such by the composer himself. Not so these Janáček suites - see Dominy Clements’ review of Volume 1 - which have been arranged by Canadian-Slovak conductor Peter Breiner. He is a busy man, with a long list of recordings to his name, among them arrangements of Bizet and Granados (Naxos 8.553114).

How, I wondered, does one knot together the emotional and musical complexities in Kát’a Kabanova and The Makropulos Affair? Kát’a is especially intense, the story of a passionate young woman caught between tradition - a powerful matriarch and a domineering husband - and her love for someone else. It’s a conflict that builds to a literal and metaphorical storm in the opera’s final act. The prelude/overture - with its menacing timp figures - hints at the tumult to come, but even at this stage Breiner misses the dramatic undertow of Janáček’s score. Just sample the start of Sir Charles Mackerras’s classic recording of the opera (Decca 421 852-2) and immediately one is pulled under and pummelled. That said, I must echo Dominy’s praise for the Naxos sound, which is satisfyingly deep and wide.

And even though Breiner is creamy rather than tart he does capture some of the opera’s distinctive rhythms and colours - just listen to those dashes of Taras Bulba starting at 1:52. Also, there is some lovely, tender playing at the start of the second movement, while in the third - where Kát’a looks forward to her clandestine meeting with Boris - Breiner conjures up vivid, authentic-sounding harmonies; there is more dramatic thrust here as well, although perhaps the sharper edges of Janáček’s score are somewhat blunted.

I particularly liked the free-flowing music of Intermezzos and Songs (tr. 4), where Breiner teases delectable sounds from his orchestra. True, the New Zealand Symphony may not be a front-rank ensemble but they play with flair and character throughout. The lovers’ brief moments of happiness are glowingly done, but before long we are plunged into the final movement and the approaching storm. This pivotal event is a lightning rod for all the opera’s pent-up emotions, rendered by Janáček in music of extraordinary tension and power. Yes, Breiner is exciting here and he does capture the pain of Kát’a’s dilemma, but in this arrangement we lose sight of the opera’s broader span, its cumulative tension.

Which brings me to the question: who are these suites aimed at? Surely if you want to hear Janáček you will buy the operas, either complete or as excerpts? The latter isn’t ideal, but I can understand their appeal, especially to listeners who just want to sample the works in question. Frustratingly, Breiner’s suites are neither fish nor fowl, and I doubt anyone would use them as a springboard to the operas themselves.

Sir Charles has recorded The Makropulos Affair twice, latterly in English (CHAN 3138). The surreal plot - which centres on the machinations of Emilia Marty, a 337-year-old opera singer in search of a potion that will extend her life even further - is one of playwright Karel Čapek’s most bizarre creations. Curiously the first movement of Breiner’s suite starts near the end of the opera, with music that contrasts Emilia’s illustrious past with the inescapable ordinariness of her impending death. As always those timp figures are full of foreboding; in the second movement they drive the music like mighty dynamos. Coupled with some strident brass they evoke much of the thrust and strength of the opera, bringing to mind the more febrile moments of the Glagolitic Mass.

The New Zealand Symphony sound thrilling here, Wellington Town Hall a good match for Breiner’s more expansive view of the score. There is a downside, though; at times this warmth is apt to make the music sound more like Korngold than Janáček. That won’t be an issue for some listeners, but those brought up on the leaner, meaner sound of the Mackerras recordings may feel something important has been lost here. That said, Breiner finds a good balance between lyricism and drama, seriousness and absurdity, in tracks 8 and 9. In the end Emilia is within reach of that elusive potion but decides to embrace death instead. Despite the absurdities of the plot Janáček’s potent score makes it remarkably easy to suspend disbelief, nowhere more so than here.

For reasons I’ve already alluded to I’m not entirely persuaded by these suites. Some listeners will enjoy this selection of tunes; others will surely prefer the emotional and musical maelstrom of the operas themselves.

Dan Morgan 


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