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Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
Glagolitic Mass (1928 version, ed. Jiři Zahrŕdka) [39:26]
Adagio for Orchestra (1890) [5:47]
Zdrávas Maria (Ave Maria) (1904) [4:13]
Otče náš (Our Father) (1901/1906) [14:36]
Sara Jakubiak (soprano); Susan Bickley (mezzo); Stuart Skelton (tenor); Gábor Bretz (bass)
David Stewart (violin); Johannes Wik (harp); Thomas Trotter, Karstein Askeland (organ)
Bergen Philharmonic Choir, Choir of Collegiűm Műsicűm, Edvard Grieg Kor, Bergen Cathedral Choir
Bergen Philharmonic/Edward Gardner
rec. Grieghallen (Mass, Adagio) and Bergen Cathedral (Otče náš, Zdrávas and organ part of the Mass); 17-20 August 2015, Bergen, Norway
Reviewed as a 24/96 Studio Master from The Classical Shop
Pdf booklet includes sung texts and English translations

Given the turmoil at English National Opera the end of Edward Gardner’s music directorship there in 2015 looks like a lucky escape; even more so now that his successor, Mark Wigglesworth, has quit as well. Gardner is in demand, though; he was made principal guest conductor of the CBSO in 2010 and took up his post as principal conductor of the Bergen Philharmonic in 2015. I’ve already reviewed his Bartók and some of his Szymanowski and Janáček, which I greeted with a mixture of delight and disappointment.

John Quinn has been more complimentary about Gardner’s Janáček recordings – three volumes so far, including this one of the Glagolitic Mass; however, he was less impressed with this conductor’s live CBSO account of the piece, which he reviewed for Seen & Heard in March 2015. Gardner’s Janáček albums offer a mix of major and minor works; in this case it’s the Adagio for Orchestra and his settings of the Ave Maria and The Lord’s Prayer. Although none of these could be classed as juvenilia – the composer was 36 when he wrote the Adagio – they are still a world away from his later, grittier style.

Janáček’s biographer Jaroslav Vogel has suggested that the Adagio was written in response to the death of the composer’s two-year-old son Vladimir; others have surmised it may have been intended as an extra overture to his opera Šárka. Whatever the true context it’s a taut, darkly lyrical piece that’s well worth hearing. Gardner emphasises the work’s ebb and flow – perhaps 'undertow' is more accurate – and he shapes it all so well. As for the Grieghallen recording it’s full and detailed, if a little dry.

We move to Bergen cathedral for the remaining fillers. The change of acoustic is both obvious and welcome, especially in the Ave Maria. Composed for soprano, organ and four-part chorus it has a simple foundation – Karstein Askeland is the discreet accompanist here – above which Sara Jakubiak’s firm, fearless voice soars most beautifully. The brief choral contributions, clear and heartfelt, are just as satisfying. What a winning little number this is, and how perfectly proportioned. Speaking of which perspectives are believable and the mellow tones of the cathedral's 1997 Rieger are superbly rendered.

Janáček’s setting of The Lord’s Prayer is somewhat unusual. Written to raise funds for the Brno Women’s Shelter it’s a series of tableaux vivants for tenor, four-part chorus and piano. The version played here is the revised one, with a harp and organ in place of the piano. I was captivated by Johannes Wik’s glorious harp playing – what a haunting figure that is in the first and penultimate sections – and by the fervent choral singing; even more arresting is the tenor Stuart Skelton, whose plangent, nicely scaled delivery seems just right for the piece.

Without hearing a note of the main work I’d say this album is a must-buy for the fillers alone. I’ve revisited The Lord’s Prayer again and again, and each time it’s been a deeply moving experience. The vigour and vision of the piece – not to mention its latent theatricality – is astonishing. And are the drenching Amens a precursor of those in the Mass, penned fifty years later? The engineers are Ralph Couzens and Jonathan Cooper, who did a fine job with Xiayin Wang’s Tchaikovsky and Khachaturian (review), not to mention Neeme Järvi's Ibert (review). They are assisted here by Gunnar Herleif Nilsen of the Norwegian state broadcaster NRK.

No review of a new Glagolitic Mass would be complete with reference to some of those that have gone before. There are many fine recordings of the so-called 'standard edition', as played here; chief among them are those by Karel Ančerl and Sir Charles Mackerras, both on Supraphon. Mackerras also recorded Paul Wingfield’s ‘restoration’, based on Janáček’s original score (Chandos). While that is clearly an important piece of scholarship I still have a soft spot for the familiar, albeit simplified version that I first heard more than forty years ago. Now there’s a third option that reconstructs the first performance in December 1927 (review).

In preparation for this review I dipped into several recordings of the Mass. First up was Sir Simon Rattle’s extremely visceral account with the CBSO, which I enjoyed more than I have in the past (EMI-Warner). Then it was the clear-eyed Rafael Kubelik and the BRSO; his DG account from 1967 and an off-air recording taped in 1976. After that Riccardo Chailly and the Wiener Philharmoniker seem much too smooth and refulgent (Decca). I also listened to a rather idiosyncratic recording with Pierre Boulez and the Chicago Symphony; that’s on Vol. 19 of the orchestra’s From the Archives series, which is now very hard to find.

There are many ways to play this piece. Most conductors I’ve encountered on record and in the concert hall go for the raw, atavistic approach. And why not, for this is earthy, elemental music that makes great demands on singers and players alike. Indeed, good soloists who can sing well at their limits are hard to find, as my random sample makes clear. That said, if you prefer something less extreme, and with fine singers too, I’d urge you to hear Leoš Svárovský’s ArcoDiva recording; intimate, personal and profoundly affecting, it’s proof that the Mass works just as well when presented on a more human scale (also reviewed here).

So, how do Gardner and his forces fare? Well, the Introduction has the necessary amplitude and attack, the dragging brass has startling presence and the timps are as robust as one could wish. There’s no lack of weight or colour in the Kyrie, either. The choirs are suitably distant and the recording captures plenty of inner detail. Even though Jakubiak is clearly at full stretch there’s little sign of impending distress. However, she’s much too far forward, leaping out of the mix in a way that’s almost intimidating. Still, she’s suitably transported in the Gloria; ditto Skelton, who steers clear of bluster or histrionics.

Incidentally, the organ parts in this recording of the Mass have been spliced in. It’s a tried-and-tested technique that usually works well. I’m sure many of you will remember Daniel Barenboim’s celebrated DG account of the Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony, onto which was grafted a recording of Gaston Litaize playing the organ of Chartres cathedral. The result was pretty spectacular. Bergen cathedral’s Rieger – played here by Thomas Trotter – is particularly impressive in the Gloria; those febrile Amens have seldom sounded so intoxicating.

Gardner articulates the work’s distinctive rhythms with passion and a sure sense of style; he also finds a degree of inwardness in the Credo that rivals tend to miss. As with Berlioz’s great ceremonial pieces it’s easy to forget that there’s lots of telling detail in Janáček’s large-scale ones as well. I also like the fact that Gardner doesn’t push the music too hard, and that allows rhythmic patterns and timbres to register with maximum effect. The bass, Gábor Bretz, is very decent and the choirs' antiphonal passages are well caught. The sound has terrific presence, with more than enough rasp and crunch when required.

There’s transparency too, especially in the opening of the Sanctus, and Gardner knows just when to crank up the tension. Indeed, there’s a pleasing unity to this performance, with no obvious joins or gear-changes, and that’s no mean feat. The Agnus Dei, so easily becalmed, sails on regardless. The soloists, including the mezzo Susan Bickley, work very well together, both here and in the Sanctus. As for Trotter’s mighty organ solo is it too much of a good thing? Perhaps, but it’s still a stunner. After that the Intrada can seem rather feeble; that it doesn’t is a tribute to Gardner’s strong rhythmic sense and theatrical instincts.

My comparative listening confirms that few recordings of this masterpiece are completely satisfying. That said, I wouldn’t want to be without Ančerl, the earlier Mackerras, Rattle or Svárovský. What about Gardner, I hear you cry? I was sold on his fillers from the start, but the rest took a while to work its magic. Having lived with Gardner’s Glagolitic Mass for a few weeks I’m now convinced it’s a good 'un. Superb sonics and Janáček scholar John Tyrrell’s authoritative liner-notes complete a most desirable package.

Lovely fillers and a glorious account of the Mass; huzzahs all round.

Dan Morgan

Previous review: John Quinn

Earlier volumes in Edward Gardner's Janáček series: Vol. 1 ~ Vol. 2



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