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Leos JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
Mists of Childhood
Kačena divoká (The Wild Duck) (1885) [3:16]
Holubička (The Dove) (1888) [2:36]
Songs of Hradčany; Plačící fontána (The Weeping Fountain) (1916) [4:10]
Elegie na smrt dcery Olgy (Elegy on the Death of my Daughter Olga) (1903 rev 1904) [6:49]
Vlcí stopa (The Wolf’s Trail) [7:39]
In the Mists, for piano (1912) [14:55]
Říkadla (Nursery Rhymes) (1927) [15:38]
Alain Planès (piano)
Lise Berthaud (viola)
Raquele Magalhães (flute)
Romain Champion (tenor)
Caroline Chassany (soprano)
Accentus/Pieter-Jelle de Boer
rec. January 2013, Salle Rasvel, Levallois-Perret
NAÏVE V 5330 [55:15]

It’s good to see that recordings of Janáček’s choral music, not least his cycle of Nursery Rhymes called Říkadla, are no longer so rigidly confined to the domestic Czech and Slovak markets. In fact not so long ago Capella Amsterdam directed by Daniel Reuss [HMC 902097] released a disc in which there is some duplication with this Naïve production, in which the choir Accentus is directed by Pieter-Jelle de Boer. That said, there is some hedging of bets in the disc under review. It would have been valuable to have had a whole disc of the composer’s choral music - for the various choral forces, male, female and mixed, for which he wrote. Naïve has, however, covered its bases by including In the Mists, one of Janáček’s best-loved instrumental works and one which will be in the collections, often multiply, of all lovers of the Moravian master’s music.

In the pieces in which both choirs sing the same music - The Wild Duck, the Elegy, and The Wolf’s Trail - it’s the Amsterdam forces that prove the more arresting and compelling. The recording very slightly recesses the Accentus forces as well, who are also generally quite a bit faster than their rivals in Amsterdam. In addition Thomas Walker and Philip Mayers (for Harmonia Mundi) receive a better balanced recording in the moving elegy the composer wrote for his daughter Olga. Also, Walker has a more flexible and lighter voice than Romain Champion. In matters of true idiomatic identification with the choral music neither can truly match the old Prague Philharmonic Chorus recordings of a number of these pieces, under their director Josef Veselka, dating from the early 1970s.

Říkadla is performed (largely) in the version made by Erwin Stein in 1927 for 10 singers, viola and piano, a version sanctioned by the composer when Universal Edition published the work in both full score and piano reduction. In this recording the Stein version is altered through the addition of a flute; thus the instrumentation is viola and piano with flute, piccolo and ocarina, all played by Raquele Magalhães. It’s more often that one encounters the fuller version for eight players performing two clarinets, piccolo-flute-ocarina, two bassoons, percussion instruments and bass. One further confusion: in the cast-list, eleven singers are listed, not ten - namely three sopranos, two altos, three tenors and three basses.

In any case Říkadla is a microcosm of the composer’s procedures, in its rapid conjunctions, and juxtapositions, and oppositions, in its rhythmic emphases, its colour, and so much more. You flit from Vixen to Jenufa and much beyond as you listen to these seemingly innocent nursery rhymes that are packed full of so much that makes Janáček distinctive, indeed unique. The viola gives a rich inner voicing in this performance - the composer was clear that he didn’t want a violin, which would have been too piercing, I assume - and so the performance can be recommended for what it is, though it can only be an ancillary recommendation given the editorial work that has gone on. The classic Kühn reading from the late 1950s remains vital in the work’s discography, though the more recent 1972 Veselka reading - Veselka, as noted above, was one of the most ardent champions of the composer’s vocal music - no less so.

Alain Planès plays In the Mists with sensitivity, though I did slightly worry about his rubati in the opening Andante. Fortunately, however, whilst not as incisive or as idiomatic as Firkušný in his famous recordings for RCA and DG, Planès takes the quartet of pieces at good, forward-moving tempi. Not everyone does.

This is a rather tricky disc to sum up. It’s been thoughtfully compiled and has some valid things to say. The Nursery Songs offer a new take. In the Mists dilutes the vocal focus. The singing is keen but not exceptional. Where they overlap Cappella Amsterdam is to be preferred. The total timing here is also quite short. I’d advise a sample before acquisition.

Jonathan Woolf

Previous review: Dominy Clements


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