Antoni Wit’s Taras Bulba is the best I’ve heard. It
is not quite like any other recording, not Ancerl’s or Hruša’s
or the few by Mackerras, and the distinctiveness comes from
First: the Warsaw Philharmonic. The orchestra disproves anyone’s idea that Czech orchestras ‘own’ this music. In the first-movement climax and the thrilling first half of the finale, the brass section weighs in with a booming power so satisfying that I find myself grinning to hear it. The string section has a creamy splendor and the tightness of the ensemble far outclasses half the bands that have ever touched this music … including Jakub Hru*ša’s Brno Philharmonic, in a newish disc on Supraphon. Then there are the woodwinds, piquant and possessed with unique personality. The cor anglais has its plaintive opening solo over a soft pillow of strings; someone once told me her biggest thrill was to hear great orchestras play quietly. The flute negotiates the second movement’s wild part with daredevil’s ease - something Mackerras’s flautist can’t quite do on Supraphon. The contrabassoons audibly dig in with zeal. Maybe most delightfully of all there’s a second-movement clarinet solo that whips to the front of the orchestra with a klezmer-like exuberance nobody else can match.
They’re a world-class orchestra at top form, but much of the credit belongs to Antoni Wit, who shapes this Taras Bulba in entirely new — and entirely logical — ways. Take the first movement. It opens at a much slower tempo than usual, and this is something of a hallmark for Wit’s style. In nearly all his performances he can adopt broader pacing without sacrificing a bit of rhythmic precision. That’s the case here, where instead of feeling sleepy the first scenes have an irresistible pulse, pushing us steadily forward. The climactic battle scene erupts with absolutely massive power and a well-managed leap in tempo. The brass, as I’ve mentioned, could raise the dead.
The second movement blooms under unusually fluid tempo. It might start off slowly but soon Wit is leading us on a lively jaunt with those exceptional woodwind players coming to life along the way. The capstone of the performance is how he conducts the work’s final five minutes. It’s a weird, even problematic ending, quite repetitive. Janacek’s refusal to let the piece end without one more cadence - no, one more…no, one more! - is often confounding. Even such luminaries as Mackerras and Anc(erl leave me dissatisfied here. Antoni Wit, as is his wont, steps on the brakes instead of the gas, but the result is electrifying. Those repetitive last few minutes take on an almost mythical force and power, possessed of monumental grandeur. The violins play from 6:51-8:30 like they’ve got the world’s most romantic tune. The final chords, which you don’t spend a few minutes wishing would come up already, have a power and certainty which is incredibly satisfying. It is no exaggeration to say that, in Wit’s hands, the ending of Taras Bulba has gone from my least favorite part of the work to one of my favorites. This is masterly conducting.
The couplings are the Lachian and Moravian Dances. Both are from Janác(ek’s early days (roughly 1890), and they’re more like Slavonic Dances than the wacky, original music which he would write later. They’re still enjoyable, especially the Lachian Dances, which do feel like a new set to pair with the Dvor(ák. The ‘Blacksmith’s Dance’ is especially delectable as it whips itself into an ever-greater fury, while the flutes ‘From Celadna’ sound straight out of Dvor(ák. The Moravian Dances are extremely hard to come by, despite their simple pleasures (the 52-second long ‘Kalamajka’ steals the show). My searches revealed only one alternative, also on Naxos, with the inferior Slovak Philharmonic under Libor Pešek.
So now Antoni Wit’s two-CD Janác(ek survey is complete. Could it have been better? Yes. Most glaringly, the Glagolitic Mass appeared in the “traditional”, which is to say truncated and simplified, form, rather than the composer’s splendid original (review). Tenor Timothy Bentch seemed to me an imperfect fit. This new CD has 25 minutes of playing time to spare, with the fantastic Schluck und Jau and its spooky brass writing left sadly unrecorded. The recorded sound is extremely good and represents the orchestra fairly well; they do sound even more ravishing live. That said, at one point I put this on immediately after a Channel Classics recording of Budapest/Fischer and did notice a slight decline in clarity. The percussion, especially, is a little bit recessed. On the other hand, Wit’s Sinfonietta was as vivid and gutsy as they come. The dances here are quite a pleasure, and then there’s the matter of Taras Bulba. The Warsaw Philharmonic’s Taras Bulba is an enormous achievement. It is my first choice, bar none.