Suites are most successful when they focus on ballet and film,
but do they work for opera? Berg’s Lulu Suite
does, but then it was conceived as such by the composer himself.
Not so these Janáček suites - see Dominy Clements’ review
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
How, I wondered, does one knot together the emotional and musical
complexities in Kát’a Kabanova
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
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
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.