Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
Glagolitic Mass (1928) [39:33]
Sinfonietta (1926) [23:21]
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, 26-27 April 2010 (Mass); 29-30 September 2009 (Sinfonietta). Sung texts available here
Sound formats: PCM stereo, DTS Master Audio 5.1

There are few more visceral choral works in the repertoire than this, the mass setting overlaid with music of pagan pulse and passion. The many fine CD versions include those by Rafael Kubelik (DG) and Simon Rattle (EMI) but none are so compelling as Karel Ančerl’s Czech Philharmonic recording, re-mastered and reissued as part of Supraphon’s Gold Edition. Earlier this year I watched Vaclav Neumann’s live performance with the same orchestra – review – but found it uninspired. Rather more successful is Sir Charles Mackerras’s Supraphon DVD of the original version, although I must confess his Chandos CD doesn’t persuade me of its virtues.

The Glagolitic Mass is a cruel piece, exposing orchestral sluggishness and reticent or insecure soloists, while taxing the chorus with its punishing tessitura. Oh, and the organ needs to play its part as well; without its powerful presence – witness the backward balance on the Neumann DVD – the elemental thrill of this great piece is lost. As for the soloists, this is one time where Slavic singers are most welcome, their distinctive singing style well-suited to this most febrile work. On this new recording only Ewa Marciniec and Timothy Bentch are familiar from Antoni Wit’s Mahler 8 – review – which narrowly missed my list of picks for 2011 because of concerns about the multi-channel mix.

But why bother with the BD-Audio version when there’s a cheaper CD as well? Much better sound and a multi-channel option, is the simple answer. A random A/B comparison of that Mahler 8 in both stereo formats demonstrates the extra power and punch of the high-res PCM recording, which also resolves detail and timbres in a way that the standard RBCD simply can’t match. The downside, if there is one, is that these Blu-rays can only be played on BD players or drives, and potential sonic advantages will be lost if the playback chain isn’t up to the mark. That said, superior sound is not a given here, despite some labels’ rather vague assertion that performances are derived from ‘HD sources’. The latter claim is demonstrably untrue in some Blu-ray videos I’ve heard.

So much for the preamble, what about the performances? Well, the Introduction to the mass is more measured than I’d expected, the acoustic warm and spacious. I suppose one might even characterise the presentation as soft-grained, which is not at all what I’m used to in this piece. The Kyrie is somewhat subdued as well, soprano Christiane Libor pleasing if unmemorable. String and brass detail is nicely etched, but the bass is poorly focused. That said, those rocking figures in the Gloria are superbly articulated, timbres especially well caught. The pulse quickens a little – but only a little – with those cascading ‘Amens’, so ecstatically done elsewhere.

And if this sounds like damning with faint praise, that’s because it is. Wit, so purposeful and dynamic in the Mahler 8 and Penderecki’s Hymne an den Heiligen Danielreview – is unaccountably dull here; even the chorus, set back in the soundstage, is less fervent than it should be. But that’s the problem; this is much too civilised, too safe, qualities that are misplaced in a work as raw and fervid as this. Indeed, this reminds me of Charles Dutoit’s rather polite Decca recording of the mass, which also fails to animate and impress.

There’s more urgency in the Credo, and again I was struck by the sheer beauty and detail of Janáček’s score. Indeed, there’s a rare translucency to the upper and lower strings, the woodwinds wonderfully rounded, but that simply isn’t enough. The bass, Wojciech Gierlach, is steady but unremarkable, the spiritual and emotional core of the mass – ‘I believe’ – lacking all conviction. It’s not helped by Wit’s sluggish pacing and that cavernous bottom end, both of which blunt the music’s edge. As for the Sanctus, it flows less naturally than usual. Wit opts for an overparted style here and in the Agnus Dei that almost brings the music to its knees, not in prayer but in defeat. The soloists aren’t particularly tidy or involved, either.

Jaroslaw Malanowicz’s organ solo ought to be arresting, but thanks to compromised lower frequencies the pedals are simply swamped. For sheer heft and excitement Jane Parker-Smith on EMI is hard to beat. Indeed, dipping into Rattle’s and Ančerl’s recordings is like an assault on the senses; suddenly we’re thrust into the midst of a wild, pantheistic rite, an orgy of commotion and colour, that excites and enervates. There’s absolutely nothing of that energy in Wit’s risk-averse reading. Otto Klemperer once dismissed Bruno Walter’s Mahler as too Jewish; perhaps Wit’s Janáček, sober and strangely cloistered, is just too Catholic.

The Sinfonietta, recorded six months earlier, is much more successful. The Warsaw brass sound splendid, the trombones in the Moderato wonderfully rich and sonorous. It’s still too controlled for my tastes, but at least there’s a hint – a smidgeon – of the febrile, ear-ringing Janáček in the first and last movements. For the full experience just sample Claudio Abbado (DG) and Mackerras (Decca), both of which are in another league entirely. And that sums up this Glagolitic Mass as well; it doesn’t begin to challenge the best in the catalogue.

Some sonic virtues; its musical ones are much harder to find.

Dan Morgan

Doesn’t begin to challenge the best in the catalogue.