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Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
Mša Glagolskaja (Glagolitic Mass) (1927) [41:24]
Vecné evangelium (The Eternal Gospel) (1914) [20:50]
Eva Dřizgová (soprano), Hana Štolfová-Bandová (contralto), Vladimir Doležal (tenor), Jiři Sulženko (bass)
Martin Jakubiček (organ)
Czech Philharmonic Chorus of Brno/Petr Fiala
Czech Symphony Orchestra of Brno/Leoš Svárovský
rec. 5-6 January 1999, Stadion Studio and Church of St Augustine, Brno, Czech Republic
Reviewed as a 16-bit download from
No booklet
Originally released on Ultraphon
ARCODIVA UP 0011-2 231 [62:23]

Like most collectors I’ve always enjoyed rummaging through stacks of discs in a music shop; alas, with the demise of so many trusted outlets and the ease of internet orders that’s now a distant memory. However, browsing online can be just as rewarding. It was on one such trawl that I came across this Glagolitic Mass, first reviewed by Marc Bridle in 2000. I’m always delighted to hear the work, a new performing version and recording of which has earned high praise from Leslie Wright (review).

That’s the second such reconstruction – Paul Wingfield’s preceded it – and while I’m all for such scholarship I still find the standard version to be immensely rewarding. Of all the recordings I own Karel Ančerl’s 1963 account on Supraphon is very special, not least for its transported singing (review). Indeed, Rob Barnett characterised that aspect of the performance as ‘almost fanatical’, which is the way the piece is most often presented. But is that the only way to play this mighty Mass? As I’ve now discovered, the answer is a resounding no.

This ArcoDiva release starts as it means to continue, with a splendid, ringing account of the Introduction (Úvod). It’s not all about brilliance though, for conductor Leoš Svárovský also brings out the fine details that tend to shrivel in the presence of too much heat. The Brno orchestra, Janáček’s home band as it were, make a very good impression here; and it’s not just the brass that deserve praise, for all sections play with a unanimity and character that one rarely hears from a provincial ensemble. Much of the credit for this must go to Svárovský, whose thoughtful, steadying presence is felt throughout.

Most surprising, perhaps, is the quality of this recording; it goes deep and it captures Janáček’s unique sonorities in a most natural and appealing way. This is the kind of repertoire that brings out the worst in some engineers and conductors, so it’s a real pleasure to hear through all the noise at last. The enjoyment doesn’t end there, for Petr Fiala’s pure and passionate chorus are magnificent in the Kyrie (Gospodi pomiluj); there’s a genuine sense of devotion here that more febrile versions tend to miss. Indeed, it’s the very personal nature of this performance that makes it so intensely moving.

The soloists are uniformly excellent, with no sign of the dreaded Slavic wobble; the women are particularly athletic, vaulting over Janáček’s daunting hurdles with aplomb. Svárovský delivers a now rippling, now urgent Gloria (Slava), in which the all-important timps are powerful but not overbearing. The Czech strings are well caught, as are the thrilling invocations of the well-balanced choir. There’ll be a special place in heaven for the trumpets and trombones though, for they are simply glorious. True, those drenching Amens aren’t the tidal waves they sometimes are, but what we get instead is a more contained – but no less affecting – swell and surge of relief and rejoicing.

I can’t remember when a performance of the Glagolitic Mass has swept me off my feet as emphatically as this one has; in some ways it’s as if I’m rediscovering the piece, and in the roller-coaster ride of daily reviews that’s very rare. The opposing choruses are nimble in the Credo (Věruju) – the harps have seldom sounded so present, so much a part of the orchestral tapestry – and those repeated string figures anchor it all so well. Again it’s the more intimate, prayerful aspects of this performance that really stand out; even the organ part, normally taken by stellar soloists and played accordingly, is kept on a very human scale.

The tenor and bass – Vladimir Doležal and Jiři Sulženko respectively – are wonderfully focused and the Sanctus (Svet) finds the quartet at their heartfelt best. Janáček’s rhythms, which sometimes mire the unwary or unskilled, are nicely articulated and Svárovský shapes and projects the music with consummate skill. I can’t recall a Glagolitic Mass – on record or in the concert hall – where the score’s intricacies have emerged with such ease and artlessness; that’s even true of the Agnus Dei (Agneče Božij), whose Stygian elements are perfectly pitched as well. There are moments here when I’m reminded of the Berlioz Requiem, where so much loveliness lurks beneath the music’s darkly turbid waters. Martin Jakubiček’s nicely proportionate organ postlude (Varhany) and the bold, incisive Exodus (Intrada) – oh, those divine trombones and trumpets! – round off a truly wonderful performance.

The filler is The Eternal Gospel, Janáček’s setting of Jaroslav Vrchlický’s poem about angelic visions and divine promises. The cantata predates the Mass by more than a decade, yet there are unmistakable flashes of the later work in its orchestration. What a pity there aren’t more recordings of this striking piece; the one I have is with Ilan Volkov, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and the Edinburgh Festival Chorus; the tenor and soprano soloists are Adrian Thompson and Gweneth-Ann Jeffers respectively. One of just a few Hyperion SACDs the disc includes The Ballad of Blanik, The Fiddler’s Child and the Brouček suite (review).

I’ve never really warmed to Volkov as a conductor, and listening to his meticulously prepared Gospel reminds me why I’ve not played the disc in ages. Minutes into Svárovský’s intense and idiomatic account and the contrast could not be more stark; even Pavel Wallinger’s violin solo is more beautifully wrought. The ArcoDiva recording is full-bodied and relatively close, and that makes for a most involving listen. Ironically, Jeffers is the one with the wobble, and Thompson can’t match Doležal when it comes to feeling and a sense of line. This is one of those times when native Czech singers really do turn a fine performance into an unforgettable one.

As in the Mass Svárovský proves a sympathetic and steadfast guide; he has a keen ear for Janáček’s sound-world and keeps his finger on the musical pulse throughout. By comparison Volkov is pale and unpersuasive, his performers precise but without passion. Yes, The Eternal Gospel isn't in the same league as the Mass, but it’s not an insignificant work either. That said, it needs strong advocacy, which is exactly what it gets from Svárovský and his utterly committed singers and players. The sound, meatier than that provided for the Mass, is still excellent; depth, detail and drama are all there in spades. Recording director Vladimir Koronthály, sound engineer Václav Roubal and the rest of the technical team really deserve a round of applause for their magnificent efforts.

The only blemish here is the lack of booklet, but unless you absolutely must have this as a download I'd urge you to click on the Buy button above and order the disc direct from MusicWeb International.

Epiphanies aplenty; mandatory listening for all Janáček fans.

Dan Morgan



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