It is a measure of the quality of the recordings now being routinely released by Naxos that technical and performing excellence can be taken for granted. That is certainly the case here. Antoni Wit and his Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra can be counted on to produce discs of considerable technical skill and musical depth with the Philharmonic Hall Warsaw proving to be a generous and sympathetic recording venue to boot. The coupling of Janáček’s two most famous non-operatic late works has come into its own since the advent of CD with more than half a dozen new recordings or re-couplings currently available. At around forty minutes the Glagolitic Mass made for a not very generous LP on its own with the Sinfonietta occupying a single side. Here they are combined to make a programme that feels more substantial than its hour running time would suggest.
I see that Naxos is releasing this performance as a Blu-Ray Audio DVD simultaneously. I have listened to this in the standard CD format. The engineering is essentially very good. Engineer/Producer Andrzej Sasin handles the complex textures of large orchestra, solo organ, four soloists and choir very well. The whole ensemble is well integrated with soloists in the foreground perhaps a tad too ‘large’. The orchestral balance is superb – some low woodwind detail registering particularly well. I’m thinking of the contra-bassoon and bass clarinets parts tellingly audible. Personally I would have liked the horns and timps to be less recessed. The former because their writing vies for supremacy with the other brass and the latter because repeating timp ostinati make for such a compellingly personal part of the composer’s sound-world. My guess is that others will find it more to their taste and that the HD Blu-Ray balance will allow for a subtler appreciation of the writing.
So far so good and indeed no-one encountering these sensational works for the first time here at the Naxos price advantage would be disappointed. But, and here’s the rub, bluntly put significantly superior performances are available for both works. What a uniquely fervent work the Mass is. Has any composer in the last year of his long life - Janáček died aged 72 the year of its composition - written a piece so bursting with exultant energy? No twilight glow of evening this, the double inspirations of nationalistic fervour and religious ecstatic outpouring - even though the composer was a confirmed atheist! - combine to make this one of the most dramatic settings of the Mass bar none. By that definition Wit is simply too debonair and cultured. His performers are accurate, often beautiful but lacking the beady-eyed zealotry of the most convincing versions. Take the famous repeating cries of ‘Amen’ that closes the Gloria [track 3] – all absolutely fine and good and really quite exciting. Then turn to any of three Supraphon recordings to hear this passage and many others have an impact on an altogether more visceral level. Ancerl in the famous prize-winning 1964 recording with the Czech PO, Frantisek Jílek with the Brno Philharmonic or possibly best of all Charles Mackerras again with the Czech PO – an early 1985 DDD recording all have the measure of the work in a way that simply eludes Wit. It feels likes too easy a choice to turn to Mackerras in Janáček so I compared this performance last. In all expectation I wanted to dip into various movements to contrast with Wit. Before I knew it I had sat listening to the whole performance absolutely spellbound. And that is how this work should affect you. For early DDD the Mackerras is really pretty good although the new Naxos is quite a bit more refined. But at every turn Mackerras - or Ancerl or Jílek for that matter - find a swagger and an emotional punch behind the notes that just feels right. Worth mentioning at this point that Wit uses the ‘standard’ revised version of the Mass as did Mackerras on this Supraphon recording – he re-recorded the work for Chandos in 1994 using the original version. Organist Jaroslav Malanowicz plays the important concertante part well although the famous solo Postludium [track 7] again sacrifices flamboyance for intellectual control. Also, as recorded the solo movement brings the instrument into the close foreground whereas its other contributions place it firmly within the instrumental group. As is only to be expected the singing of the Warsaw Philharmonic choir is skilled and polished yet once again there is an element of urbanity - almost comfort – that lessens the drama of the great choral outbursts. Wit’s soloists are literally a mixed bunch. The alto and bass are Poles, the tenor a Hungarian and the soprano a German. I’m no expert in the pronunciation of Old Church Slavonic but again it is the emotional sinew that lacks rather than any apparent linguistic failing. Measuring them against Mackerras’s team of Elisabeth Söderström, Drahomira Drobkova, Frantisek Livora and Richard Novák both individually and as a team lack authority although they are by no means poor. Söderström’s Janáček credentials are long and honourable and the three other soloists – and chorus – are utterly at home in the idiom. Add a pungently reedy organ, perfectly balanced nagging timpani and brass playing with a pagan swagger and the deal is done. This recording is still available with no coupling making poor value by one yard-stick but this is an occasion when quality beats quantity comfortably. To give some sense of how good this new version is though – the closest comparison I could find was with the Chailly/Decca account using the Vienna Philharmonic. Without Mackerras’s galvanizing energy in Janáček the VPO do sound simply too plush – glorious but too upholstered. This is a case where timings tell far from the whole story – Wit is barely more than a minute quicker than Mackerras yet the extra emotional weight of the latter gives the whole work a far more monumental and imposing feel.
Turning to the extraordinary Sinfonietta many of the same observations apply. The gap closes because the quality of the actual playing and the relative lowering of the emotional temperature of the work means there is a less extreme range across the various performances. Again I tried to avoid Mackerras but when finally turned to – in either the early rough and ready Pro Arte Orchestra version on EMI or the much-lauded Decca performance using a palpably engaged Vienna Philharmonic - it is impossible to ignore the audible fact that Mackerras was inspired by and in turn inspired others in Janáček’s music. There are many other fine versions to consider – the recently re-reviewed Serebrier/Reference Recordings disc or Ancerl again to name two among many. The impression grows on me with this new performance that your response to and pleasure in it will be directly predicated upon your expectation of the composer and his sound-world. For me Janáček needs to sound primal and elemental. This does not imply crude or simply loud but instead imbued with a life-enhancing pantheistic energy. It is not necessarily music that benefits from the modern obsession for technical perfection. The skill of the performer is to tread the tight-rope of complex execution and prowess that music this hard demands while staying true to the spiritual simplicity and directness that lies at the heart of much of this music. Consider Janáček’s most compelling operatic characters; whether the animals in The Cunning Little Vixen, the eponymous Jenufa or the prisoners in From the House of the Dead they are all driven by the most basic of life’s imperatives; life love and death.
The liner includes a good note by Richard Whitehouse and a transliterated text for the Mass with an English-only translation. There are other discs with the same coupling but curiously I have not heard any of them although collective opinion would seem to lean towards Simon Rattle early recordings available on EMI as the best of the bunch. Wit has been at the helm of several recordings in recent years that I consider as fine as any available – a stunning Szymanowski Stabat Mater immediately springs to mind (Naxos; EMI); a work occupying much the same spiritual world as the Mass recorded here. That being the case I have to admit to a degree of disappointment with this disc although that is tempered by the pleasure in revisiting two of the most individual masterpieces of the early 20th century repertoire.