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Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
Orchestral Works - Volume 1
Sinfonietta, JW VI/18 (1926) [23:20]
Capriccio, JW VII/12 (1926)* [20:08]
Suite from The Cunning Little Vixen, JW I/9 (1922-24; suite finally revised by Sir Charles Mackerras, 2008) [20:14]
*Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano)
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Edward Gardner
rec. 10-12 March 2014, Grieghallen, Bergen, Norway. DSD
CHANDOS CHSA5142 SACD [64:05]

This is billed as the first volume in a Janáček series from Bergen. Edward Gardner has been the Bergen Philharmonic’s Principal Guest Conductor since 2013 and will become their Chief Conductor in October 2015.

The series is to cover Janáček’s orchestral music. Arguably, the quirky Capriccio barely scrapes into that category: the very modest scoring is for piano left-hand, flute/piccolo, two trumpets, three trombones and tenor tuba. Yet even with those small forces Janáček, ever resourceful, conjures a wide variety of colours and ear-tickling sonorities. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet is a good soloist; he is dexterous in the first of the four movements and, indeed, throughout. The Bergen ensemble dovetails extremely well, both with him and with each other. In the second movement Janáček’s invention never settles: there are no fewer than thirteen marked tempo indications, and this in a piece lasting just over five minutes. Some of the sonorities that the composer conjures up in the third movement are little short of astonishing given the self-imposed restriction of the small ensemble with which he chose to work. It’s a highly imaginative score and it receives a stimulating performance here.

The Sinfonietta is at the other end of the scale: the additional brass players alone pretty much match the total forces required for the Capriccio. Gardner leads a very good performance. He may seem quite swift in the opening fanfares but in fact his tempo is not markedly different from the pace set by other classic interpreters of the score such as Kubelik (review) or Mackerras. In the second movement Gardner and his players, aided by fine Chandos sound, bring out the wonderful variety of timbres in Janáček’s consistently inventive scoring. Gardner achieves a good lyrical sweep at the start of the third movement and the central quick episode is exciting. I wonder, though, if the end of the movement is not drawn out rather too much. In the final movement Gardner builds up the tension successfully – and maintains good forward momentum – in the build-up to the reprise of the fanfares. Actually, in one sense it’s not a reprise since the Janáček expert, John Tyrrell points out in his notes that the composer only added the opening fanfares to the work after he’d completed it as a four-movement work. Here the closing fanfares are very exciting and jubilant and at the very end the woodwind trills come through superbly over the brass chords. I wonder, however, if Gardner has deliberately held back the brass in order to achieve this effect because on other versions I’ve sampled the balance between the brass and the woodwind at this point is much more in favour of the former.

It’s the making of comparisons that lead me to wonder if, for all its excellence, there isn’t a missing dimension to this Gardner performance. Perhaps it’s partly due to the warm acoustic of the Grieghallen in Bergen but this performance doesn’t have quite the rawness and edge that one hears in two rival performances. One is the classic 1961 Czech Philharmonic/Ančerl recording on Supraphon (SU 1684-2 11).The other, in more modern sound, is a wonderful 2002 live performance in which Sir Charles Mackerras conducts the same orchestra (Supraphon SU 3739-2 032). In both these versions the orchestral sound has a unique tang. There’s a suggestion of rawness – completely authentic – and an earthy quality to the music-making which isn’t quite there in the Bergen performance. Mackerras invests the closing fanfares with more weight and grandeur yet at a speed that’s not significantly different to Gardner’s.

The spirit of Sir Charles hangs over the suite from The Cunning Little Vixen too. John Tyrrell explains that when the opera was less warmly received than some of its predecessors Janáček’s publishers proposed the idea of an orchestral suite. The composer never warmed to the idea but after his death they sounded out Václav Talich who was more receptive. He compiled a suite that included most of the music from Act I. However, Talich felt that the characteristically individual orchestration might be a barrier to audience acceptance so, from entirely well-meant if misguided motives, he asked the conductor František Škvor and the composer Jaroslav Řidký to smooth over some of the rough edges in the original scoring. Much later Sir Charles Mackerras took a look at Talich’s suite and restored Janáček’s original orchestration. Furthermore, he added more music to Talich’s suite so that, Tyrrell tells us, only about six minutes of Act I are missing from the suite. The final version of the Mackerras suite, “which included a few minor revisions” is recorded here – for the first time?

Sir Charles died before he could perform his final revision of the suite. However, he did record his version of the suite with the Czech Philharmonic in 2002. It’s included in the same set as the performance of the Sinfonietta mentioned above. Without a score it’s impossible to be sure but I rather suspect the differences between what he performed in 2002 and the 2008 version are not major. Cast in two movements it’s a splendid piece for orchestra, full of delightful, fresh and beautifully imagined music. Like the other two scores on this disc it shows us what a uniquely inventive orchestrator Janáček was – and one of the many pleasures of Edward Gardner’s perceptively chosen programme is that it demonstrates different facets of Janáček both as a composer and as an orchestrator. This Bergen performance is very engaging – I wonder if Gardner conducted the opera during his time as Music Director of English National Opera. There’s a beguiling range of colours, mostly primary, in this score, and they’re heard to excellent advantage here. That said, the Mackerras recording, once again, brings out the timbres in a different and even more authentic way: the sound of the Czech Philharmonic is not as warm and rounded as that of the Bergen orchestra; they give the music more of an edge.

Comparison with Czech recordings of this music are instructive. They show that these Chandos performances are not inferior; rather, they are different. Gardner’s way with Janáček’s music is not the only way – but it’s pretty persuasive. The Bergen Philharmonic offer excellent playing throughout this programme and Chandos have recorded the orchestra in warm but well-detailed and well–focused sound. I listened to the SACD layer of this hybrid discs with very satisfactory results. John Tyrrell’s notes are a model of their kind.

This, I suspect, is going to be a rewarding series to follow and this first disc is an auspicious start. I wonder what will come next. I note that Edward Gardner is conducting the Glagolitic Mass in Birmingham and Bergen in March next year so I hope very much that a recording of that blazing masterpiece is on the agenda.

John Quinn