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Leoš JANÁCEK (1854-1928)
Sinfonietta [23:01]
Glagolitic Mass (revised version) [39:03]
Felicity Palmer (soprano); Ameral Gunson (mezzo); John Mitchinson (tenor); Malcolm King (bass); Jane Parker-Smith (organ - Mass)
City of Birmingham Symphony and Chorus/Simon Rattle (Mass)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Simon Rattle (Sinfonietta)
rec. 9-10 January 1981, Great Hall, Birmingham University, UK (Mass); 17-18 November 1982, Kingsway Hall, London, UK (Sinfonietta)
EMI CLASSICS 4332892 [62:04]

I was in a Janácek mood when my review copy of this CD arrived, so I put it on straightaway - well, after supper. Simon Rattle’s Sinfonietta with the Philharmonia is very good, hitting all its marks correctly, let down by perhaps only the slightest lack of electric excitement and also by the quality of the sound. The Glagolitic Mass, with the City of Birmingham Symphony, impressed me most with the singing of the Birmingham Chorus, which digs into Janácek with unexpected aplomb. If the orchestra’s strings are sometimes just too glossy - or, conversely, sometimes unsteady in their playing - the woodwinds and brass do very well. Soprano Felicity Palmer seems to me miscast and not very ear-pleasing, but John Mitchinson delivers one of the best non-Czech tenor solos for the piece.
 
The sound quality really is a problem. These were the first digital recordings of the works, but they sound 25 years older than they really are. Balances are all awry: in the acoustically tricky Sinfonietta, the final fanfares drown out the rest of the orchestra, and the bass frequencies are especially absent. With 0:42 to go, the timpani inexplicably disappear. In the Glagolitic Mass, the balances change movement-to-movement. Tenor Mitchinson, who’s placed to the right, is set farther forward in ‘Slava’ than in ‘Veruju’; worse still, in ‘Slava’ there’s a massive and very distracting echo of his voice in the left channel. Luckily it goes away in the next movement. If you’ve heard the exceptionally well-recorded Antoni Wit reading on Naxos, you’ll miss the snarling trombones in ‘Svet’ - inaudible here.
 
Even without sound that has aged poorly, there are better versions of these works. The classic all-Czech recording by Ancerl, the almost-all-Czech recording by Mackerras, and albums by Michael Tilson Thomas and Antoni Wit all come in ahead of Rattle’s efforts for various reasons: the ending of the Sinfonietta, which my colleague William Hedley rightly says is “short on jubilation”, the tameness of many climaxes in the Mass, and an absence of the feeling that Janácek was, in Hedley’s words, “almost out of control, even unhinged”. Now, in some ways Janácek was unhinged but in one way he was very hinged: he knew exactly what he was doing creating these wild, exultant, ferocious, jubilant masterworks. That comes across here, but it has been done better by others.
 
Two more notes: first, this may not top Mackerras, Wit or the others, but it certainly does top the new and pitifully bad Mass from Marek Janowski on PentaTone. Second, what is EMI doing reissuing this again? It just appeared in the 20th Century Classics series in 2009, after being dubbed a Great Recording of the Century at bargain price in 1999. ArkivMusic USA has the 1999 version $2 cheaper than this new one. The product remains exactly the same, except for new cover designs. Seems to me you’d be saving money by printing a few more copies of the CD with the original cover on, rather than hiring somebody to do up a new one and reprinting the promo materials. That’s why I’m not a record company executive. After all, EMI knows best how to turn a profit and stay afloat, right?

Brian Reinhart