BARGAIN OF THE MONTH
Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
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 Serebrier [31:02]
Czech State Philharmonic, Brno/José Serebrier
rec. CD 1: 2-5 April 1995; CD 2: 3-7 June 1996, Stadion Hall, Brno, Czech Republic
originally issued as Reference Recordings RR-65CD and RR-75CD
Two CDs for price of one.
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 consideration.
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, EMI), 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.
A fine introduction to Janáček’s orchestral music and at budget price
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 for.
Ten pages of helpful booklet notes in English only.
Tangy, spectacular and heartfelt … devastating value for money.