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Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
Orchestral Works - Vol. 3
Glagolitic Mass, JWIII/9 (1926/27) [39:26]
Adagio for Orchestra, JWVI/5 (1890) [5:47]
Zdrávas Maria (Ave Maria) JWII/14 (1904) [4:13]
Otče náš (Our Father) JWIV/29 (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 Orchestra/Edward Gardner
rec. Grieghallen (Glagolitic Mass, Adagio) and Bergen Cathedral (Otče náš, Zdrávas Maria,
organ part of the Glagolitic Mass), Bergen, Norway; 17–20 August 2015. DDD/DSD
Texts and English translations included
CHANDOS CHSA5165 SACD [63:22]

This is the third instalment of Edward Gardner’s Janáček series for Chandos. I found a good deal to admire in the previous two volumes (Vol. 1 ~ Vol. 2). As before, Gardner here offers a programme that mixes a mature masterpiece with lesser-known works.

The Adagio for Orchestra certainly falls into the latter category. In the notes by Janáček expert, John Tyrrell we learn that this was probably composed in 1890 and may have been a reaction to the death of the composer’s infant son towards the end of that year. Apart from some arrangements of folk dances it’s Janáček’s first independent orchestral score. Unsurprisingly, there aren’t really any signs of the mature Janáček here, at least not as far as I could discern. The piece is late-Romantic in tone. It’s very interesting to experience it and here it benefits from a convinced performance.

Otče náš, a setting of the Lord’s Prayer in Slavonic was written a few years later. It originated as a small stage work and John Tyrrell gives the background in some detail. Originally scored for tenor solo, chorus and piano, the 1906 revision, which is recorded here, replaced the piano with harp and organ. It is, in effect, a miniature cantata in five sections. Again, we can’t really glimpse the mature Janáček here but it’s a very attractive and fervent score – Tyrrell suggests the subject matter appealed to the composer not because it was a religious text but because the words were in Slavonic and so it appealed to his Pan-Slavist sympathies. The present performance, in which Johannes Wik and Karstein Askeland accompany the combined forces of the Edvard Grieg Kor and Bergen Cathedral Choir, is highly committed. So too is the contribution of Stuart Skelton, who has a lot to do.

Zdrávas Maria is a setting in Czech of the ‘Ave Maria’. This is essentially a soprano solo though there’s a fairly limited part for a four-part choir. The accompaniment features the combination of organ (Karstein Askeland) and violin (David Stewart, the leader of the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra). Sara Jakubiak skings the solo part with great feeling and very pleasing, warm tone.

The mainstay of the programme is the Glagolitic Mass. Early in 2015 I reviewed for Seen and Heard a performance which Edward Gardner conducted in Birmingham. I admired that Birmingham account and subsequently Gardner led further performances in Bergen before he came to make this recording. Incidentally, only one soloist from the Birmingham performance features here: organist Thomas Trotter. Gardner conducts the usual 1928 version of the score in the latest edition edited by Jiři Zahrŕdka.

I’m hard put to it to think of a choral work that is as physically exciting as this one. In its way it’s as elemental as Le Sacre du Printemps. Can Gardner and his predominantly Norwegian forces do justice to it? The orchestra Introduction promises much: the sound of the brass is vivid while the strings and woodwind are agile and eager; the orchestral playing as a whole is very incisive, which is a key attribute needed in such music as this.

When the choir enter in the Kyrie – for ease of reference I will use Latin and English in this review – they make a fine initial impression. I was also pleased to find that they’re well positioned in the aural image: too often one hears choral/orchestral recordings or broadcasts where the choir is balanced unfavourably vis-ŕ-vis the orchestra but that’s not usually a feature of Chandos recordings and it’s not the case here either. The American soprano, Sara Jakubiak is very communicative in her singing and there’s no trace of Slavic wobble.

The soprano launches the Gloria and Ms Jakubiak does so in fine style. Her timbre in these pages is characterful and I like both her joyful singing and the clear-textured accompaniment. As the music unfolds she’s dramatic and seems well ‘inside’ the music. The choir, too, contributes most impressively and I like the way that the sound of the organ is integrated even though it was recorded in a separate location. Stuart Skelton’s first entry is full-blooded and he continues in heroic vein. Hereabouts the orchestra is terrifically incisive – the timpani particularly exciting – and the combined choirs are very much on their mettle. Gardner’s pacing of the closing section of this movement is buoyant and at the very end the timpani and organ really make their mark.

The Credo is at the heart of the work. Skelton sings with ringing assurance at “... in one Lord, Jesus Christ” but, pleasingly, he is just as successful when Janáček requires a more lyrical approach soon after that. A tender flute solo (3:44) ushers in the orchestral interlude. Here the way the Bergeners go about their business is magnificent; the playing is very beautiful at first but gradually the tension and energy builds until Trotter bursts in with a very dynamic piece of organ playing (6:14) The section for choir and orchestra that follows is bitingly dramatic until Skelton proclaims the Catholic and Apostolic Church with blazing conviction (9:19). Not long after this we hear the bass soloist for the first time and the strong singing of Gábor Bretz does not disappoint. The splendid sound of the organ crowns the last few bars.

After so much animal excitement the delicate orchestral playing at the start of the Sanctus - and in many other parts of this movement - is a delight. A little later the “Heaven and earth” passage is boisterous and joyful. All four soloists do well in the Benedictus section. The subdued tension generated by the orchestra at the start of the Agnus Dei is just right. In this movement the chorus is very eloquent as, indeed, are the soloists.

The organ postlude is marvellous. The organ sound is full-throated and reedy. Thomas Trotter displays agile virtuosity and his thrilling playing is brilliantly captured by the engineers. All that remains is the Intrada, which is delivered with exuberance. This last movement allows one more telling contribution from the timpani and the Bergen brass. If this were a liturgical performance – which would never happen - then this dynamic account of the last movement would send the congregation out of the church and into the sunshine with a real spring in their step and smiles on their faces.

This is a very fine performance of Janáček’s choral masterpiece. The soloists are excellent, as are the chorus and orchestra. For his part, Edward Gardner really gets hold of the score and directs it with flair and drama. Ralph Couzens has engineered the recording and he has achieved most impressive results. I listened to the SACD layer and found that I could hear lots of detail while the overall sound picture is excitingly conveyed. The only other comment to make is that the documentation is comprehensive with John Tyrrell’s expert notes the highlight. This, I think, is the best release to date in this series.

How does this new recording stand up in comparison to some earlier versions? I deliberately avoided making performance comparisons with an earlier Chandos release conducted by Sir Chares Mackerras because there a different text – Paul Wingfield’s edition of the 1927 score – is used. However, I thought it would be interesting to compare the actual recorded sound. The Mackerras version was set down in the Danish Radio Concert Hall, Copenhagen, in January 1994 (download review). Overall the recording has stood the test of time; the orchestra comes across well, for instance. However, when I listened to the organ solo in the penultimate movement, though the solo is well enough played the sound of the instrument is nowhere near as vivid as on the Bergen release. The new Chandos recording represents a sonic advance on its predecessor.

There is another Mackerras performance on CD and this uses the familiar score (Supraphon 33C37-7448). It was made in the House of Artists, Prague in 1984 and features the Prague Philharmonic Choir, the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and a very good team of soloists. I’ve always rated this performance highly and I still do. I prefer – by a short head – Gardner’s soprano and tenor soloists. The Supraphon recording for Mackerras offers, perhaps, a bit more space around the performers but it’s not as vivid as the new Chandos and the organ in the Rudolfinum is very much second best.

The same hall was the venue for Karel Ančerl’ s 1963 recording which, for me, retains classic status. I don’t think anyone has ever quite matched Ančerl’s raw energy and idiomatic fervour in this score. He has the services of the same choir and orchestra that, in their 1984 incarnation, performed for Mackerras and they’re in trenchant form. The recording still sounds pretty good for all that it is over 50 years old and Ančerl makes the music fairly leap off the page. Beware, however; as Robert Hugill pointed out in his review, for all their commitment the soloists are rather compromised by Slavic ‘wobble’. One other thing I love about this recording is the wonderfully reedy sound of the Rudolfinum organ. Perhaps by 1984 it had had a makeover but it sounded very different - and utterly distinctive – in 1963.

A recording that I’ve come to relatively recently, thanks to Dan Morgan’s review of it, is the account set down in 1999 under Leoš Svárovský. That recording was made in Brno, where the work received its first performance in 1927. It’s a version that has an awful lot going for it. For one thing the Czech Philharmonic Chorus of Brno achieved greater clarity than any other chorus in my experience – until Gardner’s Bergen choirs came along. The overall sound of the recording is very good and there isn’t a weak link in the performance. The organ, which was recorded in a separate location, as is the case with Gardner, has a splendidly reedy sound though the sound is not as exciting as that produced by the Bergen instrument. Also the organist is a bit steadier than Thomas Trotter in the big solo near the end and so not quite as thrilling.

Even confining myself just to the versions mentioned above – I’m well aware there are a good number of other fine ones in the catalogue – I’m almost spoilt for choice because each has strong claims on the attention of collectors. The Ančerl recording is a special experience and anyone who loves and is thrilled by the Glagolitic Mass will surely want that in their library even if the solo team isn’t the best on disc. I’d urge you to hear the Svárovský also. But anyone wanting a library version of the work can invest in the new Gardner version with confidence. It’s a very fine, exciting performance and Chandos have captured it in thrilling sound.

John Quinn



 

 




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