Sinfonietta (1926) [22:26]
Lachian Dances (1893, 1924) [20:32]
Taras Bulba (1915-18) [22:34]
The Cunning Little Vixen-Suite (arr. Václav Talich,
rev. Václav Smetáček) (1921-23. arr. 1937) [16:28]
Jealousy (original prelude to Jenufa) (1906) [5.39]
From The House of the Dead prelude (1928) [6.02]
The Makropoulos Case (1923-25) Symphonic Synthesis by José
Czech State Philharmonic, Brno/José Serebrier
rec. CD 1: 2-5 April 1995; CD 2: 3-7 June 1996, Stadion Hall, Brno,
originally issued as Reference Recordings RR-65CD and RR-75CD
REFERENCE RECORDINGS RR-2103 [65.08+59.40]
This two-disc set of Janáček has a lot going for
it and one drawback. The performances are uniformly excellent
with playing by the orchestra of the composer’s hometown
that is obviously idiomatic. The discs offer a really good selection
of Janáček’s works that would make a nice
introduction to his music for someone who does not know it well
or is new to the composer. Serebrier’s interpretations
are largely fine too, without distorting the composer’s
unique idiom. Furthermore, the set is offered at budget price
and thus is a real bargain. My reservation, though, concerns
the recorded sound. Reference Recordings prides itself as an
audiophile label, and I have heard some stunning things from
them in the past. Not here. Perhaps the culprit is the recording
venue, Stadion Hall. The very live acoustic really needs taming
for the works to make their full impact. It seems that whenever
the music reaches or exceeds forte, the sound becomes
harsh. Because of this some detail gets obscured and the bass
is often cloudy. The recordings are labelled as “high
definition compatible digital”, so maybe you need special
high-end equipment to gain full appreciation of the performances.
I have listened to this set on high-quality headphones, on my
car stereo, and on my home audio system both with Bose cube
speakers and subwoofer, and with powerful B&W speakers,
and the results are pretty much the same. I think the performances
are worthy, however, especially at the price, but one should
try to audition them first. Because of my affection for these
particular works, I have a good number of recordings with which
to compare, and Serebrier’s should still be given serious
There is no shortage of recordings of the Sinfonietta
from which to choose, from such all-Czech accounts as Karel
Ančerl’s classic on Supraphon to a plusher account
by the Berlin Philharmonic under Claudio Abbado on DG. Both
of these are favorites of mine, though, as with virtually all
of the Janáček he recorded, those of the late Sir
Charles Mackerras take pride of place with me. My favourite
at the moment is the last he made, with the BBC Philharmonic,
but that is available only as a BBC Music Magazine cover disc.
He loosened up a bit more with that performance recorded at
the 2007 London Proms and recaptured some of the excitement
of his very first one with the Pro Arte Orchestra on EMI
Classics, but with better sound and cleaner playing. Serebrier
is definitely in the league with those mentioned. His exhilarating
account is on the brisk side, with only Ančerl beating
him by less than a minute. The orchestral balance is really
good, too, with the important timpani making their presence
known. With clearer sound, they would make the impact of those
in the Mackerras accounts. The strings and winds, especially
when playing at the lower dynamics, are beautifully warm, and
the trumpets blaze forth in the fanfares, as they should. Taras
Bulba, likewise, receives its due and is right up there
with Mackerras (Decca and Supraphon), Ančerl (Supraphon,
and Bĕlohlávek (Chandos).
The English horn is particularly poignant as played by the Brno
soloist, and the organ comes through well at the end of the
third movement. Sandwiched between these two most popular of
the composer’s orchestral works are the less frequently
recorded Lachian Dances. The Brno musicians really know
how to raise their heels in these earlier works that owe more
than a little to Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances.
Again clearer, tighter sound in the bass would have been beneficial,
as the rhythms there do not make their full impact.
The second disc is devoted to music from Janáček’s
operas. Only the overture Jealousy became a stand-alone
work when the composer divorced it from Jenůfa and
is likely the composer’s best-known orchestral work after
the Sinfonietta and Taras Bulba. Serebrier’s
account is fine, though both Mackerras and Bĕlohlávek
find more in the piece. I have a greater problem accepting the
other works on this disc, largely because I love the operas
so much. They really lose a great deal without voices and the
Czech language that is such an important part of Janáček’s
writing. The Prelude to From the House of the Dead is
in itself a complete overture - in fact, Janáček
used it as the basis of his unfinished Violin Concerto. I guess
it can be justified as an appetizer for one the greatest operas
of the twentieth century. The so-called Cunning Little Vixen
Suite is more problematic. First of all, as performed here,
it is only ersatz Janáček, as the composer’s
unique orchestration was thickened by the Czech conductors Talich
and Smetáček. The added percussion volleys also
seem misplaced. When Mackerras recorded it the second time,
for Supraphon - his first recording with the Vienna Philharmonic
on Decca accompanying the opera also used Talich - he reverted
to Janáček’s own orchestration. The Suite
contains music only from the opera’s first act and it
works all right, I suppose, but it does recall the “bleeding
chunks” accusations made against Wagner’s orchestral
excerpts. Janáček’s operas are under two hours
each, unlike the gargantuan Wagner works, so there is really
no excuse to record only the orchestral portions. The last work
on this disc is a first: Serebrier’s own symphonic synthesis
of the Makropoulos Case. Richard Freed quotes Serebrier
in his lucid and detailed booklet notes, as stating that he
did not make a single change in the orchestration of his arrangement.
That may be, and is laudable if true, but as interesting and
well assembled as this symphonic work is, it shows only one
side of the composer. It may be useful to students of orchestration,
but give me the opera with voices any time.
To conclude, then, if one is coming to Janáček for
the first time, this set should make an ideal introduction even
with my reservations over the sound. With idiomatic performances,
Richard Freed’s excellent notes, and a terrific drawing
of the composer on the cover, this budget-priced set is a winner.
And Rob Barnett has listened to this set after first reviewing
it a decade ago:-
This 2CD set was first
issued in this form in 2001. It was devastating value for
money then and it remains so.
Serebrier is an admirable conductor and it is good to hear that
after his Glazunov cycle he is now to record the symphonies
of Dvořák. Chances are that they will be at least
as good as classic editions by Rowicki and Kubelik. Not that
things have always been plain sailing: his Tchaikovsky 4 on
Bis simply refused to ignite.
The present set matches up 'pure' Janáček with works
assembled by Talich/Smetacek and Serebrier.
From the momentous rolling fanfares of Sinfonietta the
sonorous trumpet choir are sharply placed on high in the aural
landscape. The rest of the fruitily burred brass and the tetchily
impatient woodwind also convey the impression of being recoreded
in a big space. The Sinfonietta is one of those works
that is a core 'must have' for any general classical collection.
It is Slav without being Russian, exotic without being repugnant,
optimistic without being puerile. Janáček's fanfares
lodge firmly in the memory and are rivalled in his output only
by those in the Glagolitic Mass. This recording, in particular,
made me wonder whether Copland heard this work before writing
Fanfare for the Common Man. The bass presence is remarkable
but once again the great depth of the soundstage contributes
to the poetics (track 3). This depth consolidates the sense
of Martinů-like plangency. The brass are in resplendent
form and their manic death-hunt whooping and barking at 3.51
(track 3) is an audio and musical highlight. This is amongst
the finest of modern recordings and interpretations. The Lachian
Dances are, as a work, a disappointment by contrast. My
first impressions of this work, formed by hearing an LP (Decca,
1971) recording conducted by François Huybrechts - whatever
happened to him? Didn't he record Nielsen’s Espansiva
as well? - are confirmed by the present disc. Low voltage stuff.
The sound-picture is just as impressive as for Sinfonietta
but the music is so relaxed as to seem casual - almost ordinary.
The dances are an addition to the Dvorák Slavonic
Dances and Rhapsodies but truth to tell nowhere near
as inspired. Highlights include a generous airborne horn section
in the second dance and a sprinkling of rustic charm and jollity.
Taras is interesting as a piece and is well advocated.
I was struck for the first time by the presence of the harmonium
and also by the debt Copland seems again to have owed to Taras.
The diffuse self-questioning of the first movement is followed
by greater concentration in the second movement. Stabbing, angular,
thrusting figures launch heroic contributions from the brass
(notably trombones) in steady, deliberate, poised and pulsed
heroism. The finale resonates with the pealing of bells. In
Sinfonietta and Taras Reference have two works
that are natural 'spectaculars'. You will go a long way to find
a better recorded or interpreted big-sound version of these
pieces. Sinfonietta bids fair to be the best available
version. Taras is impressive but as a piece lacks the
compelling invention of the Sinfonietta. As for the Dances
they remain a chummy and relaxed quotidian make-weight: nice
to have but not in themselves the stuff of compulsive acquisition.
The Cunning Little Vixen is the most immediately beautiful
selection here. This launches with chattering and stabbing.
The atmosphere speaks of magic and woodland pools before the
first section ends in crashing tragedy. There is great emotive
power in the second and final part reminiscent at times of Rimsky's
Antar but with much more steel. The two operatic suites
frame two preludes. The atmosphere of Jealousy is of
baying unrest. The yelping horns echo those in the Sinfonietta.
There’s a petulantly swirling violin solo and an ionospheric
trumpet section all conjuring playful eddies of romance and
great clashing isobars. From the House of the Dead is
claustrophobically similar to Jealousy with the repeat
fanfare at the end rumbling and tumbling in Straussian hysterics.
The prelude ends with a reminiscence or pre-echo of Sinfonietta.
The Serebrier synthesis positively seethes with interest. The
squealing and squirming violins toss and turn like oiled quicksilver.
Barking horns bring the work to a superb climactic close.
A step further out along the exotic trail can be taken with
another 2 CD set from the same stable: Chadwick: RR-2104 HDCD.
This includes the Symphonic Sketches, Aphrodite,
Tam O‘Shanter and Melpomene. Again two CDs
for the price of one!
A Serebrier Glagolytic Mass would be well worth petitioning
Ten pages of helpful booklet notes in English only.