Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
Mša glagolskaja (Glagolitic Mass), JW III/9 (final version) (1928) [39:33]
Sinfonietta, JW VI/18 (1926) [23:32]
Christiane Libor (soprano); Ewa Marciniec (alto); Timothy Bentch (tenor); Wojciech Gierlach (bass); Jaroslaw Malanowicz (organ)
Warsaw Philharmonic Choir/Henryk Wojnarowski
Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra/Antoni Wit
rec. Warsaw Philharmonic Hall, Warsaw, Poland, 26-27 April 2010 (Mass), 29-30
September 2009 (Sinfonietta), DDD
Text and English translation of the Mass included
NAXOS 8.572639 [63:05]

This most logical coupling of two of Janáček’s greatest compositions of the last decade of his life is not all that common on disc. It is, then, my pleasure to welcome the recent release of this disc. The numbering of these seminal pieces is presumably taken from the authoritative Janáček’s Works: A Catalogue of the Music and Writings of LeoŠ Janáček by Nigel Simeone, John Tyrell and Alena Nemcová, published by Oxford University Press in 1997. This is something which lately has begun appearing on recordings of Janáček. It should be noted that the version of the Mass used here is the familiar one that was published after its premičre by the Brno Arts Society in 1927 and not the reconstructed original version by Paul Wingfield that has increasingly been used in performances and that was championed by Sir Charles Mackerras. The main question here, then, is how do these new accounts stack up against the many recordings of these works? As far as the identical coupling is concerned, I have no hesitation in claiming them to be at the very top, ahead of Rattle (EMI) and Tilson Thomas (Sony). When one is considering the individual works, however, it becomes more complicated — particularly concerning the Glagolitic Mass.

Overall, Wit and his Warsaw forces have the measure of this extraordinary mass. If one had heard only this recording, I am confident it would provide real satisfaction. However, there are enough shortcomings here when one starts comparing this with the best of its predecessors that the very good becomes the enemy of the best. First off, while the quartet of soloists is more than adequate, I find the important soprano and especially the tenor to be overly operatic, histrionic even. If you compare them to, say, the soloists on LeoŠ Svárovský’s (Ultraphon), or Mackerras’s first recording (Supraphon), or Gabriela Benačková for Tilson Thomas (Sony) or Beno Blachut for Ančerl (Supraphon), you will understand what I mean. Still, they are more than acceptable, and the chorus is wonderful on this new recording. The orchestra, too, does itself proud for the most part. One irritating passage that should have been retaken concerns the high trumpet solo at 1:05 and again 1:18 in the Veruju. It is especially clear, but also very flat. I compared this passage with the same on several recordings; while some of the others are not as clear, none are really flat. Otherwise, I have no complaints with the performance per se. Wit’s interpretation, though, is not all to my taste. His tempos are questionable in several of the movements. In the Slava movement, Wit suddenly speeds up the tempo from about 5:20, ending the movement in a blur of sound with the important timpani making little impact. Then he takes the Veruju at a livelier than normal tempo, resulting in a jauntiness not in keeping with the text. Most of the other recordings with which I am familiar clock in between 11:30 and 12:00+ minutes for this movement, whereas Wit manages to get through it in 10:52. Robert Shaw on Telarc is even faster by a few seconds. On the other hand, in the Svet where the “dance” begins with “Plna sut nebo”, Wit retains a rather stodgy tempo where most conductors take this section at a swifter tempo than the preceding “Svet…Gospod, Bog Sabaoth” (Tilson Thomas ridiculously so!) and more or less retain this tempo to the end. I have no reservations about either the Gospodi pomiluj or the Agneče Božij sections. The Introduction and Intrada movements also come off well. That said, throughout the Mass, the recorded sound, while rich and full, lacks bass impact. There is plenty of bass, but it is on the muddy side so that the important timpani parts do not tell as they should. The very end of the Intrada is an example where the last two timpani strokes sound more like a single note. The organ, however, is magnificent and sounds as if it has been recorded more closely than normal — even unnaturally so. One miscalculation that may be due more to the engineers than the conductor is the long space between the organ postlude and the Intrada. The latter should begin as soon as the reverberation from the organ has died away, but here one has to wait what seems like an interminably long time before the Intrada starts and this lessens its impact. As far as recordings of the Glagolitic Mass in its revised form are concerned, I would place Wit after Ančerl, Svárovský and Mackerras - though Mackerras’ first recording also contains a few changes taken from the original score - and ahead of the others with which I am familiar per my comparative review of recordings on this website. At the time I wrote that review I had not heard (or not recently enough to remember) Chailly, Tennstedt, Masur or Kempe in the Mass. Their recordings, as well as those by Rattle, Kubelik, Bakala, Svárovský, and this new Wit are all available for listening on the Internet on Spotify for free. I listened to excerpts from all of them while writing this review and was astounded by the differences in interpretation, from the generally slow and dull Chailly to Tennstedt’s race to the finish line.

What makes this new disc indispensable is the Sinfonietta. For both performance and sound it belongs in the top echelon of recordings of this dazzling work. This was recorded in the same hall as the Mass, but at an earlier date. For whatever reason, the sound here is terrific. The crucial timpani make the necessary impact both in the opening Allegretto fanfares and in its reprise in the last movement. The orchestra as a whole is outstanding with special praise due to the brass and winds. The trumpets are glorious, and in tune, and the tuba and trombones are particularly good in the third movement — better than in most other recordings. Wit uses the larger tubular bells in the third and fourth movements, which seems right to me, rather than the tinkling glockenspiel some conductors employ. According to the “catalogue” cited above, it is unclear which the composer intended, much as it is in the case in the finale of Sibelius’ Fourth Symphony. I should mention that the strings, too, leave nothing to be desired here. I would now place Wit’s account on the same level as those of Ančerl and Mackerras and ahead of Abbado and Serebrier, among others. I know I shall return to it when I want to hear the Sinfonietta.

Naxos, as usual, does not stint on its production values. There are excellent notes on the works by Richard Whitehouse and detailed biographical sketches on the artists as well as the background of the orchestra and choir. Also unlike some other Naxos recordings, you don’t have to go to the website for the text of the Mass. It is printed in the booklet with an English translation. On small point: while most of the timings on the back of the jewel case are accurate, the first movement of the Sinfonietta is listed as 2:32 where it is actually 2:22. In my opinion, then, Wit’s is the best option now for this particular combination of works on one disc. The Sinfonietta alone makes it indispensable.

Leslie Wright

A good Glagolitic Mass and superb Sinfonietta make this disc excellent value.