Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
Orchestral Works - Volume 2
Jealousy, JW VI/20 (1895) [5:30]
Violin Concerto ‘The Wandering of a Little Soul’, JW IX/10 (1926? Incomplete) (Completed by Leoš Faltis and Miloš Štĕdroň (1988) [12:05]
The Ballad of Blanik, JW VI/16 (1919) [7:43]
The Fiddler’s Child, JW VI/14 (1913) [12:48]
The Danube, JW IX/7 (1923-25) Unfinished symphony. Completed by Miloš Štĕdroň and Leoš Faltis (1985) [16:10]
Taras Bulba, JW VI/15 (1915-18 [22:51]
Susanna Anderson (soprano); James Ehnes (violin); Melina Mandozzi (violin)
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Edward Gardner
rec. 2014, Grieghallen, Bergen, Norway. DSD

Late last year I reviewed the first volume in Edward Gardner’s new Janáček series from Bergen. It’s good to find Volume 2 following so quickly.

This survey includes a couple of scores that Janáček failed to complete. In his highly informative notes the renowned Janáček expert, John Tyrrell guides us through the history of these pieces and, in headline terms, the issues arising from the fact that the composer left them as incomplete scores.

Jealousy does not fall into the category of incomplete scores; instead it’s something of a discard. It was originally intended as the prelude to the opera Jenůfa but John Tyrrell believes it was abandoned during the rehearsals for the first performance of the opera. The music was not included in the first publication of a piano-vocal score and it appeared in no performance of the opera during Janáček’s lifetime. As befits music that was intended as an operatic prelude it’s a dramatic piece and it gets an arresting and vivid performance from Gardner and his Bergen forces. The excellence of their performance is accentuated by the superb SACD sound - the biting brass and the timpani sound especially impressive. I got out the 2002 performance by the Czech Philharmonic and Sir Charles Mackerras (SU 1684-2 11). The Supraphon sound is pretty good – perhaps a bit mellower than the very vivid Chandos recording – and Mackerras leads an excellent performance. However, I didn’t feel that Gardner’s account suffers at all by comparison.

Gardner also offers The Ballad of Blanik, which John Tyrrell says was probably written in 1919 to celebrate the foundation of the Czechoslovakian Republic. The piece is dedicated to Tomáš Masaryk, the President of the new nation and Tyrrell speculates that the piece is more about Masaryk, whom the composer admired, rather than the old legend on which other composers, such as Smetana, had previously based works. In any case, given the amount of detail concerning the legend which Tyrrell describes in his note it seems to me that Janáček would have been hard pressed to illustrate much of the story in a score that plays for less than eight minutes. It’s a colourful score, ardent and positive in spirit. It’s played with splendid conviction here.

The Fiddler’s Child is in three sections, each of which is separately tracked here. There are important solo roles for several instruments – and apparently Janáček was very explicit as to which instruments represented which element of the story. Given the title of the work and the story which it illustrates it’s not surprising the leader of the orchestra is primus inter pares. Melina Mandozzi, the leader of the Bergen Philharmonic, is characterful and incisive in representing the Old Fiddler whose demise and ghostly reappearance form the basis of the story. The central section depicts the Fiddler’s ghost returning from the dead to tempt his dying child to come with him. Here the music is spectral and Gardner establishes excellent tension in these pages. Overall this is a dramatic and involving performance.

One of the two reconstructed scores is the unfinished symphony, The Danube. John Tyrrell discusses the genesis and eventual abandonment of this score in some detail. It seems likely that the composer rather ran out of steam and realised that this project was not firing his creative imagination in the same way as other scores that he worked on around this time, notably the Sinfonietta and the Glagolitic Mass. It appears that the editors, Miloš Štĕdroň and Leoš Faltis didn’t seek to impose their own views on the four movements that Janáček drafted. As John Tyrrell puts it their reconstruction is “more modest [than the efforts of previous editors] in its ambitions, confining itself to presenting an accurate picture of what Janáček left and deciphering the often ambiguous notation.” The results are, perhaps inevitably, somewhat fragmentary though the music has the authentic Janáček sound. Quite what the composer would have made of the score had he lived to complete it – or had the urge so to do – we shall never know but, as Tyrrell says, what there is contains much interest. The editors seem to have done a wholly convincing job. Janáček’s inventive orchestration is highly original and never less than fascinating – the use of timpani in the second movement is exceptionally striking, for instance. In the third movement Janáček includes a wordless soprano solo, here expertly taken by Susanna Anderson. This, Tyrrell suggests, is a ‘voice of nature’ role. Her music is lively and extrovert and the impact is heightened by the use of a viola d’amore to partner the singer. There’s an outdoor feeling to much of this score, especially the fourth movement and whilst regretting the frustrations associated with its incomplete status I’d rather have the piece in this form than not at all.

The same pair of editors is responsible for completing the Violin Concerto though John Tyrrell says that in realising Janáček’s sketches Štĕdroň and Faltis “were on more dubious ground.” The music seems to have originated as a draft overture to From the House of the Dead but though Janáček made two continuous drafts of the piece he eventually laid it aside. The score is in one movement which plays without a break but which contains no less than ten tempo changes. I have to say that it seems to me to be a rather disjointed piece though it is intriguing. The music is sometimes acerbic and often attractive. James Ehnes is a nimble and assertive soloist while Gardner ensures that the highly original orchestral parts are tellingly realised.

The programme concludes with one of Janáček’s best and best-known orchestral works: Taras Bulba. John Tyrrell rightly points out that the music is often cinematic in its orchestration and in its depiction of events. It’s a busy score with lots going on, especially in the third movement, ‘The Prophecy and Death of Taras Bulba’. Thanks to the excellence of the razor-sharp playing and the splendidly rich and detailed Chandos recording all of this registers. It’s a vivid and sometimes graphic score – especially graphic in portraying the death of Ostap at the end of the second movement: Gardner and his players really bring the music to life. A compelling and exciting performance is capped in the last four minutes or so of the work. Here Gardner invests the music with nobility and grandeur. In the closing bars the organ is thrillingly sonorous. The Supraphon set that I’ve already mentioned includes a live 2000 performance by Mackerras and the Czech Philharmonic. The orchestra is on blistering form, playing with genuine fervour, and Mackerras leads a superb performance. Yet Gardner’s reading is by no means put in the shade and, excellent though the Supraphon sound is, the Chandos engineering definitely has the edge. Janáček enthusiasts will need no prompting from me to remember also the classic Ančerl account from 1963 (review). This great Czech conductor’s performance has a special authority and the Czech Philharmonic of the early 1960s still retained that unique Eastern European timbre. However, despite the great intensity of Ančerl’s reading the Supraphon recording is now showing its age and his CD is an essential supplement to modern versions such as either the Mackerras or the Gardner.

At the end of my review of the previous instalment in this series I suggested that this Gardner survey of Janáček’s orchestral music could be rewarding to follow. This very fine release more than confirms that judgement. The performances are uniformly excellent, the notes are ideal and the sound is magnificent, even by the usual high Chandos standards. All in all this is a compelling package for Janáček enthusiasts and Volume 3 is eagerly awaited.

John Quinn

Previous reviews: Dave Billinge (SACD) ; Dan Morgan (24/96 download)


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