Leoš JANÁČEK (1854 - 1928)
Mša Glagolskaja (Glagolitic Mass) (original version 1926-1927) [41:57]
Taras Bulba (1918) Rhapsody for orchestra [22:38]
Aga Mikolaj (soprano), Iris Vermillion (contralto), Stuart Neill (tenor), Arutjun Kotchinian (bass); Iveta Apkalna (organ), Rundfunkchor Berlin, Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin/Marek Janowski
rec. Haus des Rundfunks, RBB, Berlin and (organ solo), Philharmonie Berlin, November 2010 and April 2012
Sung texts with English and German translations enclosed
PENTATONE CLASSICS PTC 5186 388 SACD [64:35]
The first sketches for the Glagolitic Mass were made as early as 1907-1908 when Janáček began working on a mass for choir and organ. He only completed the Kyrie, Agnus Dei and parts of the Credo. When he much later, in 1921, met the Archbishop of Olomouc, Janáček complained about the bad quality of church music, whereupon the prelate asked him to write something himself. Then he immediately set to work and took out the mass sketches from his drawers and used them as the basis for the new work. This mass was to be sung in Old Church Slavonic, translated from the Latin mass in the ninth century, the hand-writing known as the Cyrillic or Glagolitic script, thus the title of this Mass. The inspiration came through a thunderstorm, which was the germ out of which Gloria developed. The Mass then can be seen as ‘a hymn to creation, life and love’. Between 2 and 17 August 1926 Janáček worked as in a trance until the work was finished. Only the organ solo was created at a later date. The premiere in Brno was not until 5 December 1927 before which then he reworked it several times. Yet further revisions were made before the Prague premiere in 1928. Were they all to the good? Opinions are divided but in 1994 the score was reconstructed by Paul Wingfield and that is the version used here. The organ solo is also based on the original manuscript and the Intrada is played both at the beginning and the end of the work.
The mass is scored for soprano, alto, tenor, and bass soloists, double SATB choir, and an orchestra of 4 flutes (2-4 doubling piccolos), 2 oboes, cor anglais, 3 clarinets (3rd doubling bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (3rd doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, glockenspiel, triangle, snare drum, cymbals, tam-tam, chimes, 2 harps, celesta, organ, and strings (violins I and II, violas, cellos, and double basses). It is almost as extravagantly scored as the Sinfonietta - bar nearly a dozen extra trumpets in the opening and closing movements - which is almost contemporaneous. Such spectacular forces need a state-of-the-art recording, and that is exactly what Pentatone has provided here. I have listened in traditional 2-channel stereo and it has amazing clarity and dynamic range. I suppose the effect can be even greater through a multi-channel system.
The Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin - not to be confused with Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, formerly known as Radio-Symphonie-Orchester Berlin - play excellently under their chief lifetime conductor Marek Janowski. He may seem a bit too careful but there is true pesante power in the Intrada and the following Úvod, the latter with brass sonorities closely related to the Sinfonietta. Simon Rattle in his early digital recording (1981) is more youthfully exuberant but then it should be kept in mind that Janáček was an old man when he composed the Mass, about the age Janowski was when he recorded it, so youthfulness per se is not a necessary ingredient. Moreover that EMI recording is beginning to show its age, so technically Janowski wins hands down.
Janowski also has good soloists - at least three of them. Aga Mikolaj is lyrical while Iris Vermillion is grandiose and Stuart Neill, who started as a fairly lyrical tenor back in the 1990s has grown in strength and is now a heroic singer of the highest order. Unfortunately Arutjun Kotchinian is rather shaky but as a whole the solo singing is an asset on this recording. So is the playing of organist Iveta Apkalna in the postlude. It is one of the heftiest pieces in the organ literature and with the life-like recording the listener is in for a stunning experience.
Hefty is also a proper word for the symphonic poem - although Janáček calls it plainly ‘Rhapsody for orchestra’ - Taras Bulba. It is based on a novel by Gogol and describes, in three movements, episodes in the Cossack leader’s dramatic life. In the first movement there is some hauntingly beautiful love music with excellently played solos for English horn, violin and oboe. Basically this is highly dramatic writing with spectacular battle music, where the brass dominates - Janacek obviously loved trumpets and trombones. The end of the work with brass, organ and ringing bells is truly thrilling. As in the Mass the orchestra are on their toes, and even though Janowski’s restraint shows through, I doubt that many listeners would be disappointed. Charles Mackerras on Supraphon is probably the safest recommendation in both works, though his Decca version of Taras Bulba with the Vienna Philharmonic is something special indeed. Rafael Kubelik’s DG recording of the Mass is legendary, but the almost fifty-year-old recording has to yield to more modern competitors.
At times truly thrilling.
See also review by Brian Reinhart
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