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Leoš JANACEK (1854-1928)
Orchestral Works - Vol. 1
Sinfonietta (1926) [23:20]
Capriccio (1926) [20:08]*
The Cunning Little Vixen suite (1922-24 rev. 2008) [20:14]
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano)
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Edward Gardner
rec. 10-12 March 2014, Grieghallen, Bergen, Norway.

This release has been reviewed by John Quinn, who made pertinent points about the differences between Czech orchestras and the Bergen Philharmonic. I too noted the relatively soft sound of the horns at the opening of the Sinfonietta, relieved that Edward Gardner was observing the merely forte marking in the first bars rather than having his players knock the bejesus out of the music from the outset.
There are dozens of recordings of the Sinfonietta available, and Chandos is competing with itself here with a fine recording conducted by Jiří Bělohlávek with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. Gardner is brisker in the opening fanfare, his trumpets busier and less triumphant than with Bělohlávek. There is an exciting urgency to this performance however, and the clarity of the more up-front recording balance makes for an exhilarating experience. Subtle touches also make big differences. The soft low octave winds in the third movement Moderato for some reason have greater weight in Gardner’s Bergen recording, adding dimensions which also pay dividends later on in the Suite. What we don’t hear so much from the Bergen players is that Eastern European pungency which is evident with the Warsaw Philharmonic conducted by Antony Wit on Naxos (see review). Simon Rattle on EMI used to be a contender (see review), but these days sounds a little OTT to my ears.
The Capriccio was Janáček’s follow-up to his wind quintet Mladi and doesn’t count as an orchestral work. I have nothing against it appearing here, though it will be interesting to see which other works pop up as this series progresses. With fine left-hand pianism from Jean-Efflam Bavouzet and needle accuracy from the Bergen winds this is a reference recording, and one which also almost manages to convey Janáček’s strange mix of moods. The only point I would make is with regard to wit and humour – not that this is entirely lacking, but the musicians don’t revel in potential jokes. For instance, there are some delicious upward swoops from the brass in the first movement of the piece in the Naxos recording (8.553588) conducted by Tamás Benedek, and these moments are entirely understated with Gardner – beautifully subtle, but less fun. Gardner is closer to the score in this regard and there are indeed no glissandi notated, but listening online to more elderly Supraphon examples such as with the Brno Radio Ensemble shows how a freer approach can at times add amusing pep to an already deeply quirky score.
The Cunning Little Vixen suite as restored by Sir Charles Mackerras makes for a wonderful piece, though I would urge people to explore the full opera in one way or another. The rich, expressive warmth of the Bergen Philharmonic has value here, the chamber-music ensembles and various little solos superbly supported by romantic sweep in the strings and dramatic commentary from the brass and elsewhere. John Quinn points out in his review that these performances are “different” to those by Czech orchestras, and it is towards the end of this Cunning Little Vixen that you realise you are more in Hollywood than the forests of Moravia. This is indeed a delicious performance, but perhaps not the only one you will ever want to have.
Dominy Clements

Previous review: John Quinn