Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
From the House of the Dead: Prelude (1927-28) [5:50]
Amarus (cantata for soloists, mixed chorus and orchestra) (1897) [29:35]
The Cunning Little Vixen (1921-23): Orchestral Suite (arr. Talich, rev. Smetáček) [20:20]
From the House of the Dead (1927-28): Orchestral Suite (arr. Jílek) [21:10]
Věra Soukupová (soprano); Vílem Přibyl (tenor)
Prague Philharmonic Choir/Josef Veselka
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Václav Neumann, František Jílek
rec. live, 1974-88, Czech Radio, Smetana Hall, Prague
PRAGA DIGITALS PRD250308 SACD [75:24]
On paper this collection of Janáček works may seem attractive, but based on their sound and the editions used, the recordings probably should not have been reissued. The only rarity is the cantata Amarus, which has received few recordings. Charles Mackerras made a superior one to this in 1985 with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus for Supraphon. The other selections on this CD, with the possible exception of the Prelude to From the House of the Dead, remind me of the “bleeding chunks” often referred to concerning Wagner excerpts. In both Janáček cases the orchestral suites are given in bastardized versions by arrangers and not in the composer’s orchestrations. Furthermore, there is even less reason to issue these suites when the operas themselves, unlike Wagner’s, are relatively short and available in superb recordings by Mackerras and others.
Amarus is in five movements and is based on a text by the Czech poet Jaroslav Vrchlický about a boy who, as an illegitimate child, was taken to a monastery and christened Amarus (Bitter) where he dies from the desire for life and love. Musically, the work anticipates both The Eternal Gospel and the Glagolitic Mass and could have come from none one other than Janáček. Neumann and his Czech forces have this work in their blood and the vocal soloists are excellent. Unfortunately, the digitally remastered sound of the live performance falls some way short of ideal and audience noise intrudes occasionally, especially when listening on headphones. Strangely, the booklet lists only tenor and soprano soloists, while the solo baritone part — he shares the narrator’s role with the tenor — is not listed anywhere. On the other hand, the soprano gets top billing, though she only has a small role in the second movement. As noted above, the Mackerras recording is superior on most counts. Some may prefer Neumann’s less operatic soloists, but Mackerras brings greater dynamic variety to the work and the recorded sound is crisp and clear.
Neumann does justice to the From the House of the Dead Prelude, especially compared to Jílek’s account as the first number in his orchestral suite from the opera. There the sound is distant and muddy. In any case, the suite does not make a lick of sense to me undoubtedly because I love the opera so much. Even worse, the beefed up orchestration really jars and the ending is not what Janáček wrote, contrary to what the CD booklet indicates. In place of the original, terse ending that is operatically and orchestrally so much more effective, Jílek gives us the long-discredited, grandiose one by Břetislav Bakala or other hands. The suite from The Cunning Little Vixen is better recorded, but again the original orchestration to which Mackerras reverted in his last recording of the suite is not used. Instead we get thicker orchestration and extra percussion that nearly ruins the music.
In sum, I do not favour this CD unless you are in the market for a recording of Amarus and cannot find the Mackerras version.