Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95 (From the New World) (1893) [43:57]*
Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
Missa Glagolitica
(1926) [43:48}
Gabriela Beňačková (soprano); Drahomira Drobková (contralto); Josef Kundlák (tenor); Sergey Kopčák (bass); Jan Hora (organ)
Prague Philharmonic Choir/Lubomír Mátl
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra; *Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester/Václav Neumann
TV directors: Barrie Gavin (Dvořák), Klaus Lindemann (Janáček)
Picture format: 4:3/NTSC
Sound: PCM Stereo, Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1
Region: 0
Menu language: English
Subtitles: none
rec. 1991, Alte Oper, Frankfurt, Germany (Dvořák); 1987, Dvořák Hall, Rudolfinum, Prague, Czech Republic (Janáček)
ARTHAUS MUSIK 101 535 [99:00]

Czech music owes a huge debt to the two Václavs – Talich and Neumann – Karel Ančerl, Rafael Kubelik and Sir Charles Mackerras. On record all are splendid in Dvořák – Kubelik’s DG ‘New World’ a deserving classic, Neumann’s on Supraphon equally so – and while they’ve also given us some great Janáček, Mackerras is still sans pareil in this field. All are gone now, so seeing any of them on the podium – as opposed to just hearing them – is a rare pleasure indeed. And anyone who assumes this DVD is a historical curiosity may be surprised to discover it doesn’t contain grainy old footage, but two fairly recent concerts with sound and pictures to match.

From the moment we hear that familiar opening theme on the strings it’s clear this is going to be a ‘New World’ to remember; woodwinds are characterful and very well blended, emphatic timp strokes underpinning this warm, spacious recording. The brass are thrilling too – the trombones especially authoritative – and this music just blossoms so naturally that it’s hard to imagine it being played any other way. As for the pictures, the 4:3 aspect ratio is hardly an issue, and the video direction is discreet and carefully choreographed. In short, a perfect complement to the conductor’s direct, unfussy podium presence.

As so often with Dvořák, it’s about rhythmic vitality and bounce, and the GMJO are wonderfully supple in this department. And after that big, muscular conclusion to the first movement the grave trombone chords at the start of the Largo couldn’t come as a greater contrast. True, the all-important cor anglais solo may not be as prominent as it sometimes is, but there’s no mistaking the profound melancholy of this great tune; but then that’s a good metaphor for Neumann’s approach, solos discreetly despatched, textures remarkably refined and transparent. Indeed, for such an iconic melody – once used to accompany a bread commercial – it emerges here with renewed freshness and grace. Even the closing bars of the Largo seem more stoic than usual, the final brush of strings darkly resonant.

As for the Scherzo it’s crisply played, with plenty of momentum and – in the dance-like episodes – a thoroughly idiomatic lilt as well. The combination of fine detail and bass weight in the PCM mix is as good as it gets, and although the GMJO are rather tightly packed on the platform there’s a decent stereo spread too. The final Allegro is as fiery as one could wish for, Neumann fanning the brass into a veritable blaze at times. That said, the music never sounds brash or overdriven, admirable qualities that inform this performance as a whole. But it’s the final peroration – powerful, incisive, overwhelming – that sets the seal on this fabulous concert. For once, the ensuing roar of approval is fully justified.

This performance of Janáček’s Missa Glagolitica, filmed in Prague’s rather grand Dvořák Hall, also promises to be something special, not least because Neumann is conducting the band with which he’s so closely associated – the Czech Philharmonic. Soloists Josef Kundlák, Sergey Kopčák and Gabriela Beňačková have all recorded this music before; I’ve enjoyed the latter’s Margherita in Boito’s Mefistofele, and her contribution to the Dvořák Te Deum (coupled with the Neumann ‘New World’ I mentioned earlier). Collectors who know and love this Mass will have many versions on their shelves, among them the more traditional eight-movement one – played here – and the so-called Wingfield edition, which more closely represents Janáček’s original intentions in terms of structure and orchestration.

Whatever the version, this remains an ambitious, hugely compelling work, one of the highpoints of 20th-century choral music. And what a terrific sense of expectation as the camera pulls back to reveal first the Prague Philharmonic Chorus and organist Jan Hora on their balustraded platform and then the assembled orchestra and soloists below. Janáček certainly knew how to write for brass, as a recent NYO performance of Sinfonietta at London’s Barbican Hall so forcefully reminded me; not surprisingly, the Czechs make a splendid noise at the outset, although the revised version – which begins with an Intrada – can be just as arresting.

Regrettably, the sound here is not as warm or well-focused as it is in the Dvořák; in fact it’s rather diffuse, which blunts the score’s sharp edges and drags at Janáček’s complex rhythms. This is particularly noticeable in those grinding brass figures in Úvod (the introduction) and the dark, agitated string passages at the start of Gospodi pomiluj (the Kyrie). However, I did find that cranking up the volume adds a bit more bite to the proceedings; it certainly makes the women’s chorus sound more febrile, Beňačková both secure and commanding in the vaulting lines of Slava (the Gloria). All the more disappointing, then, that Neumann doesn’t articulate Janáček’s surging rhythms terribly well. That may have more to do with the recording than the playing, but it’s fatally enervating nonetheless.

Balance is most certainly an issue with the light-toned tenor Josef Kundlák, who’s barely audible above the orchestra in Slava. The antiphonal cries of the women’s and men’s choruses are well captured though, and while the cascading ‘Amins’ aren’t as ecstatic as they can be, the Gloria still comes to a stirring conclusion. The opening bass figures in the pivotal Veruju (the Credo) could do with more attack and edge; indeed, the orchestral playing seems very sluggish at this point, in stark contrast to the thrustful, passionate chorus. The burly bass, Sergey Kopčák, is adequate – at least he’s more easily heard – but Kundlák doesn’t stand a chance in this welter of sound. What one really needs here is the transported tones of tenor Vilém Pribyl (on Mackerras’s Supraphon recording) or the incomparable Benno Blachut (for Ančerl, also on Supraphon).

The dark string writing that ushers in Svet (the Sanctus) is played well enough, but that’s undermined by a Toscanini-like inflexibility of rhythm. This adds up to a curiously dry and discrete performance, lacking any sense of connectedness or inner tension. Sadly it’s all ebb and no flow; and despite some fine choral contributions in Agneče Božij (the Agnus Dei) the retreat continues. There are visual distractions as well, notably contralto Drahomira Drobková’s marionette-like bobbing as she sings. What a pity, also, that the great organ solo is so undernourished. Organist Jan Hora is no stranger to this music, so one can only assume the recording is to blame. That said, Neumann does marshal his forces for a credibly exciting finale but, alas, it’s not enough to salvage an otherwise uninspired – and uninspiring – performance. No cheering after this one, I’m afraid.

Neumann’s contrasting demeanour – relaxed, avuncular in the Dvořák, unsmiling and visibly tense in the Janáček – is a pretty good guide to the qualities of these two performances. I would certainly rank this ‘New World’ alongside his audio version for sheer vitality and lift, but as I’ve suggested there are much better CDs of the Mass. If you must have it on DVD, then go for Mackerras’s revised version on Supraphon SU 7009-9 031. But if you own just one CD of this great work then it must be Ančerl’s account of the traditional score, reissued as part of his multi-volume Gold Edition (Supraphon SU 3667-2 911).

Dan Morgan

Neumann’s contrasting demeanour – relaxed and avuncular in the Dvořák, unsmiling and visibly tense in the Janácek – is a pretty good guide to the qualities of these two performances.