Leoš JANACEK (1854-1928)
The Makropulos Case
Elisabeth Söderstrom (soprano) - Emilia Marty; Peter Dvorský (tenor) - Albert Gregor; Dalibor Jedlička (bass-baritone) - Dr Kolenatý; Vladimir Krejčík (tenor) - Vítek; Anna Czaková (soprano) - Kristina; Václav Zítek (baritone) - Jaroslav Prus; Zdeněk švehla (tenor) - Janek Prus; Beno Blachut (tenor) - Count Hauk-šendorf; Komorná - Blanka Vítková (soprano); Jiří Joran (baritone) - Strjník; Poklízečka - Ivana Mixová (mezzo)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and State Opera Chorus/Charles Mackerras
rec. September-October 1978, Vienna Film Studios
Lachian Dances (1906) [22:28]
London Philharmonic Dances/François Huybrechts
rec. October 1970, Kingsway Hall, London
DECCA 478 1711 [66:02 + 51:55]

If you want one don’t you want them all? We collected the Mackerras-Janáček series one LP boxed set at a time as they were issued. Then came their CD replacements. But beyond those battalions came the 9 CD box of all the collaborations [4756872] which currently retails for £47. This two disc Makropulos Case in the Decca ‘Originals’ (so-called) series is on offer for £17. So, I suppose, since economics does come into it, given the now classic status accrued by these performances, you had better work out your priorities; individual sets or go the whole hog and collar the lot. I’d go for the latter option by the way, but you may have gaps in your collection that may be satisfied by a more precision-targeted approach.

I mention all this at the outset because the big Decca box referred to above is so outstanding a bargain. This isn’t to say that you won’t want to augment performances from the Supraphon catalogue or indeed elsewhere. But it does illustrate the strength in depth of that marvellous body of recordings. In the case of Makropulos, the obvious antecedent is Bohumil Gregor’s mid-1960s performance on Supraphon 1083512. There’s the Silja DVD from Glyndebourne as well.

Still, this 1978 recording had editorial advantages given that John Tyrell’s work on the ‘original’ edition established its functionality and superiority as a theatrical work of art. Those who know what I suppose one could call the kind of bowdlerised edition will know that in the Tyrrell-Mackerras version there is no final chorus. The starkness befits the subject matter that much better.

The intervening years have also brought losses, and this is true in the case of Elisabeth Söderstrom. Those who found her an odd choice for Emilia Marty presumably didn’t know that she gave the first concert and staged performances of the work in France; Paris in 1966 and the staged performance in Marseille in October 1968. In both cases Charles Bruck conducted. She was in her own way something of a pioneer and her rapport with the central character, and her idiomatic Czech, are remarkable, vivid examples of her art.

The spatial balances established by the Decca team remain as convincing as when one first heard them. The sense of a performance is established immediately. Then there is the question of dialogue rapidity, the natural establishment of Czech speech rhythms and the dictates of a recorded operatic experience - these things permeate the second scene (Ach je, ach bože) where the Vítek of Vladimir Krejčík sets the authentic tone. One can admire too the distracted intensity of Anna Czaková’s Krista, a sometimes overlooked cast member when all ears rend to turn to Söderstrom or to the Gregor of Peter Dvorský - and rightly so, since they’re both superb, the latter maintaining an ardency that is compelling; hear him at his apogee in his meeting with Marty Konečně… Dobře, Gregor in Act I. This was in fact, but for the heroine, an all-Czechoslovak cast, and sported Beno Blachut, then sixty-five, as a typically characterful Hauk-šendorf.

The strings of the Vienna Philharmonic impart a lustrous Puccinian glow when required - the Moravian composer seldom sounded as in love with the Italian master as he does in Act II’s scene with Marty (Tos ty, Bertíku - CD1 track 13). Then too there is the supple blandishment of the Vienna winds to enchant one. These qualities are famously more rounded than Prague or Brno forces but they are undeniably effective and they impart no sense of unwonted ‘glamour’.

There is a dual language (Czech/English) libretto and the documentary notes, with detailed examples of Janáček’s correspondence with Karel Čapek, from whose play the opera was taken, furnished fascinating detail on the collaborative art - the libretto famously was the composer’s own.

A previous CD incarnation allowed in some performances by David Atherton but this one retains only the Lachian Dances in the perfectly decent but not very special London Philharmonic Dances/François Huybrechts recording.

Jonathan Woolf