Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
Taras Bulba, JW VI/15 (1918) [24:57]
Lachian Dances, JW VI/17 (1889-1890) [20:32]
Moravian Dances, JW VI/7 (1891) [9:09]
Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra/Antoni Wit
rec. Warsaw Philharmonic Hall, 2-3 September 2010; 26 April 2011 (Taras Bulba, Moravian Dances); Witold Lutoslawski Studio of Polish Radio, 12-13 October 2010 (Lachian Dances)
NAXOS 8.572695 [54:39]
I’m a staunch supporter of Antoni Wit and his hard-working Warsaw band. Their discs of central and east European repertoire have given me much pleasure over the years. That said, I do wonder if this busy schedule is taking its toll. Their recent BD-A of the Glagolitic Mass and Sinfonietta - review - was surprisingly subdued and frankly rather ponderous. Despite the high-res format the sonics aren’t up to much either. That’s why I approached this new CD with trepidation, hoping for a blood-curdling rhapsody and some idiomatic dances. As ever, Sir Charles Mackerras is the benchmark in this repertoire. His classic Taras Bulba from Vienna is included in Decca’s 5-CD set of Janáček’s chamber and orchestral works (475 523-2).
The first few minutes of Wit’s Taras Bulba are not encouraging, with flaccid rhythms and a fatal lack of impetus. These failings are all too familiar from their earlier recording. The sound is fierce and shallow where Mackerras’s is warm and full-throated. The tuning of the Warsaw organ in ‘The Death of Andrei’ is suspect too. It makes the whole enterprise seem woefully ill-prepared and hurriedly executed. Dipping into Mackerras’s gloriously propulsive account one senses a strong narrative; moreover, speeds are wholly convincing and the work’s dramatic peaks are perfectly judged. Against this irresistible torrent Wit’s version is a mere trickle, his players overwhelmed by the amplitude and urgency of their Viennese counterparts.
A dispiriting start, but perhaps the folk dances will bring some much-needed lift. François Huybrechts’ Lachian Dances with the London Philharmonic - also included in the Decca box - have been characterised by Jonathan Woolf as ‘perfectly decent but not very special’; it’s a sentiment I share. Listening to them now I was much impressed by the forgotten thrill and temperament of the first Starodávný; the LPO are in cracking form. Once again the Warsaw players are found wanting, as is the recording, which is just too close and coarse for my taste.
I suppose one could argue that Wit’s readings have an authentic earthiness, but Mackerras and others have shown that refinement need not compromise character. Janáček’s piquant harmonies and gruff rhythms are just as easily discerned and enjoyed when played by well-upholstered ensembles. That said, I’m pleased to report Wit’s Požehnaný is delectably done, even if the ear-pricking LPO bells are more atmospheric; his Dymák and the second Starodávný are serviceable. It’s a pity the soundstage isn’t as deep or as wide as it is for Decca. Also, I don’t feel Wit points rhythms as subtly as Huybrechts, whose control and consistency gain extra credence in such variable company.
Matters improve somewhat in the Moravian Dances, the infectious lilt of Kožich is very well managed and Trojky is given splendid bounce. These are tantalising glimpses of what might have been, an upbeat ending to an otherwise downbeat disc. I so wish I could be more complimentary about Wit’s Janáček, but on these showings it doesn’t even come close to the best in the catalogue.
Inexplicably dull; a very disappointing issue.
Dan Morgan

see also reviews by Brian Reinhart (June 2012 Recording of the Month) and Paul Godfrey
Inexplicably dull; a very disappointing issue.