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Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
Sinfonietta (1926) [23:24]
The Fiddler’s Child (1912-13) [12:47]
The Ballad of Blaník (1919) [8:18]
Taras Bulba (1915-18) [23:42]
Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra/Tomáš Netopil
rec. Rudolfinum, Prague, Czech Republic, 22-24, 29 June 2012, 30 September 2012. DDD
SUPRAPHON SU 4131-2 [68:31] 

I was not all that impressed with Tomáš Netopil’s work as an accompanist to cellist Tomáš Jamník on a Supraphon Dvořák concerto disc I reviewed for this website. That said, I am happy to report that he has at least in part redeemed himself here. The rather tepid account of the opening Sinfonietta, however, does not bode well. Even with the Band of the Castle Guards and Police of the Czech Republic, listed inside the CD booklet, as having taken part in the Sinfonietta with its brass fanfares, the work fails to make its usual exciting impression. Though the performers play well, everything is rather low key and rather too metrical. Part of the problem is the low volume with which the work was apparently recorded. Even with a boost from the volume control, the performance lacks impact. So the fault must lie with the conductor. This account is not a patch on any of the Mackerras versions or even the more recent one by Antoni Wit on Naxos. Happily things greatly improve after that.
The next two works on the CD, The Fiddler’s Child and The Ballad of Blaník, are not often recorded, though both belong to the composer’s mature period. The Fiddler’s Childdoes get an occasional performance, while The Ballad of Blaník is even more rarely heard. This is a pity, since its themes closely resemble those of The Cunning Little Vixen and it is a most attractive piece. As the writer of the notes states, Janáček wrote little for the orchestra alone. It is claimed there that the CD contains all of the mature works for orchestra the composer completed, which is basically true if one discounts the two completed movements of incidental music to Gerhardt Hauptmann’s play Schluck und Jau Janáček composed in the last year of his life. I mention this because there would have been room on the disc to include them, as they are representative in style of the Sinfonietta and Glagolitic Mass with their brass fanfares. Both Mackerras and Libor Pešek have made fine recordings of this music. It is odd, though, that Mackerras to my knowledge never recorded The Fiddler’s Child or, commercially, The Ballad of Blaník. So, the present disc is all the more valuable for including these symphonic poems in performances that are not only idiomatic and well played, but which bring the works to life in a way that seems to elude Netopil in the Sinfonietta. There is a Mackerras concert recording of The Ballad of Blaník on BBC Radio Classics, but it fails to do justice to the work primarily because of the poor recording. More recently Ilan Volkov recorded both works along with the choral The Eternal Gospel and an orchestral suite from The Excursions of Mr. Brouček with the BBC Scottish Symphony for Hyperion. That is a strong contender. Netopil compares favorably with Volkov in the two orchestral works common to both discs. His are just that much more dynamic and crisp, but Volkov clearly has their measure. Netopil’s violin soloist depicting the old fiddler in The Fiddler’s Child, Petr Zdvihal, deservedly gets an acknowledgement in the booklet. I must also mention the excellent Chandos recording by Bělohlávek and the Czech Philharmonic of The Fiddler’s Child, containing Taras Bulba and other works.
As with the Sinfonietta, there is much greater competition in recordings of Taras Bulba. There is no question that Netopil does not bring as much power or excitement to the score as Mackerras and others have done. Still, in its own way, this is a convincing account. Like the rest of the disc, it is very well performed and Netopil brings out the poetry well. He rises to the occasion for the climaxes and ends the piece in glory. Overall, the recordings here are well balanced with good bass and plenty of warmth. Yet there is also clarity, so that the articulation of some of the string parts, particularly in The Ballad of Blaník and Taras Bulba is as clear as I have ever heard. On the other hand, in the third movement of the Sinfonietta, the engineer has the whooping horn part louder and more present than in any recording I know. I imagine some horn players might appreciate it, but it skews the usual balance.
The bottom line, I guess, is that this disc is very welcome for its two shortest, but rarely recorded items, while the two big works have received much better representation elsewhere - though I also have a soft spot for the Taras Bulba here.
Leslie Wright