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Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
Kačena divoká (The Wild Duck) JW IV/18 for Mixed Chorus (1885) [3:17]
Což ta naše bříza (Our Birch Tree) JW IV/22 for Male Chorus (1893) [2:40]
Elegie na smrt dcery Olgy (Elegy on the Death of My Daughter Olga) JW IV/30 for tenor Solo, Mixed Chorus and Piano (1903-04) [6:49]
1.X.1905 (Z ulice dne 1. října 1905) (From the Street, 1 October 1905) JW VIII/19, Piano Sonata (1905-06) arr. Chamber Ensemble Reinbert de Leeuw [11:30]
Kantor Halfar (Halfar the Schoolmaster) JW IV/33 for Male Chorus (1906) [5:04]
Vlčí stopa (The Wolf’s Trail)
JW IV/39 for Soprano Solo, Female Chorus and Piano (1916) [6:34]
Potulný šílenec (The Wandering Madman) JW IV/43 for Soprano, Tenor, Baritone and Male Chorus (1922) [4:13]
Concertino JW VII/11 for Piano and Chamber Ensemble (1925) [15:36]
Říkadla (Nursery Rhymes) JW V/17 for Chamber Choir and 10 Instruments (1926) [13:27]
Collegium Vocale Gent, Het Collectief/Reinbert de Leeuw
rec. 9-10 March 2015, Begijnhofkerk, Sint-Truiden, Belgium
Czech texts with English and French translations included
ALPHA 219 [69:12]

I have usually associated Reinbert de Leeuw with such later twentieth-century composers as Ligeti and Messiaen. Here he takes on Janáček and offers the listener a wide-ranging collection of the composer’s shorter choral and chamber works from early to late in his career. The very accomplished Collegium Vocale Gent seem quite as home here as they do in the works of J.S. Bach, whose choral music they have recorded outstandingly well. Het Collectief, which on this disc consists of a chamber ensemble meeting the at times unusual requirements of Janáček’s music, is new to me. They also appear comfortable with the Czech idiom and fulfill their role with considerable enthusiasm.

The first two pieces are choral songs in Janáček’s early folk-music style. The Wild Duck, for example, is based on a folksong the composer altered to suit his wishes. While one would not necessarily recognize this music as that of the Janáček of his later works, the harmony already anticipates them to a certain degree. It is a rather sad song about a duck being shot and leaving its family to fend for themselves. Our Birch Tree is a romantic song in which comparison is made between the trembling tree branches and the torment of the heart. De Leeuw in this song, as in almost everything on the programme, employs faster tempos than some native Czech groups. While this can add excitement in some of the works here, it can also preclude clear enunciation of the lyrics. In this particular song it isn’t much of an issue, though these artists are up against the famous Moravian Teachers Choir under Lubomír Máti on Naxos.

There is a big leap in time and style with the next work, the Elegy on the Death of My Daughter Olga, which comes from the time of the composer’s most popular opera, Jenůfa, the period of his early maturity. Janáček composed the Elegy when his twenty-year-old daughter Olga was dying, having contracted typhoid fever in St. Petersburg, Russia. For Janáček Olga was Jenůfa personified. This work begins with a long piano introduction that has much in common with his other solo piano pieces, particularly the Sonata 1.X.1905 with its repeated phrases. The beautiful Elegy is written for tenor solo with a mixed choral response and significant piano part. The pianist on this recording, Thomas Dieltjens has the measure of the music, as does the excellent tenor Paul Bentley-Angell and the mixed chorus.

Normally the pianist would be responsible for the Sonata 1.X.1905, but in this case we are given an arrangement by conductor De Leeuw without piano. He has adapted the score for a chamber ensemble of thirteen instruments: flute, oboe, English horn, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, horn, accordion, two violins, viola, cello, and double bass. This work has had an interesting history. Janáček wrote it in response to an anti-German rally after Germans protested the Czech request to establish a Czech-language university, and a workman was bayoneted, later dying in hospital. Originally the sonata had three movements. The first, “Foreboding”, is dramatic and anticipates the demonstration, and the second, “Death”, is a funeral march-like dirge. This is all that remains of the music thanks to the pianist who made a copy of the score for the second performance. Janáček burned the third movement finale, seizing it from the hands of the performer during its premiere. He later threw the first two movements in the Vltava, but they had already been copied by the pianist.

The sonata has since become among the composer’s most frequently played piano music, although some have considered it awkward for the instrument. De Leeuw loved performing Janáček’s other piano pieces, but found the sonata “uncomfortable” for the piano. So he arranged it for chamber ensemble. The new arrangement convinces largely by virtue of the combination of wind instruments with the added colour of the accordion, the latter reminding me of the harmonium in Dvořák’s Bagatelles. One could imagine Janáček approving of it, though at times the ensemble overwhelms the music. I find the piano original more startling in depicting the events that inspired the composer in the first place.

The next three works on the CD come from the composer’s maturity and demonstrate well his abilities as a choral composer, which culminated in the great Glagolitic Mass. The first of these, Kantor Halfar, is one of a trio of male choruses drawing on texts of Czech poet Petr Bezruč. This chorus tells of the tragedy of the teacher Halfar who was deprived of his livelihood because of his nationality and insistence on speaking his native Czech. The score contrasts static chordal passages with dramatic ones that turn vehement where the men almost shout. De Leeuw’s choir do justice to the work and are more convincing than the larger Prague Philharmonic Choir on Supraphon, which sound rather heavy with their slower tempos. In this respect the Belgians have more in common with the Moravian Teachers Choir, who, as noted above, are the most effective of all. The other two choruses of this “trilogy” are Maryčka Magdónova and Sedmdesát tisíc (The 70,000), are also songs of national social protest. It is hoped that De Leeuw would include these in a future release.

The Wolf’s Trail (or Wolf’s Tracks, as it is often referred to) in its use of a female choir and piano anticipates the slightly later masterpiece, The Diary of One Who Disappeared. That work is primarily a tenor song-cycle. The Wolf’s Trail is a ballad about the adultery of an old army captain’s wife and is based on a poem by Jaroslav Vrchlický. The combination of female voices, soprano solo, and piano marvellously depicts the tale and contains the essence of the composer in a little over six minutes. Again the Belgian singers and pianist leave little to be desired. Oddly, the Prague Philharmonic Choir’s version adds a tenor soloist to portray the captain, though this is not indicated in the score. I would stick with the original here.

The Wandering Madman, the last of Janáček’s unaccompanied choruses, takes its text from a poem by Rabindranath Tagore. The composer attended a recitation by Tagore when he came to Prague in June 1921 and fell under the spell of the great thinker and poet. The chorus tells the story of a man who spends his life searching for a touchstone that will turn objects into gold. The man had had the stone, but threw it away not realizing its power. This is among Janáček’s late, great works and more complex than the other choruses on the disc. The three soloists are excellent as is the choir with the low basses coming through tellingly at the end. A preference for this account over that of the Moravian group is a hard call, and either is preferable to the larger Prague Philharmonic Choir with its more operatic soloists.

The Concertino is one of the composer’s best-known works. It is not a “little concerto” any more than the Sinfonietta is a “little symphony,” but a true chamber composition in four movements that also has programmatic elements recalling The Cunning Little Vixen. The first movement is for horn and piano where the horn represents a cross hedgehog; the second movement has the clarinet as a chatty squirrel; the third movement is a night scene with birds; and the finale has everyone in a discussion while the piano acts as organizer. Janáček’s sense of humor is clearly present in the Concertino, but it can also be enjoyed simply as a wonderful chamber work. De Leeuw and his musicians do it proud. I listened to three other recordings of the Concertino and found only Václav Neumann’s with the Czech Philharmonic musicians and pianist Rudolf Firkušný on RCA to challenge this. Their account is mellower with the idiomatic sound of the Czech winds and Firkušný’s authoritative pianism, but De Leeuw’s solo horn and clarinet are equally superb. David Atherton with the London Sinfonietta and pianist Paul Crossley are very well recorded for Decca, yet their more deliberate approach verges on the studied at times. I was really disappointed with Charles Mackerras’ EMI recording with Mikhaďl Rudy and the musicians of the Paris Opera largely because of the close, dry sound. I expected it to be a winner with Mackerras as a great Janáček interpreter, but Rudy’s pianism also falls short of the others.

The final selection, Říkadla (Nursery Rhymes), another great, late work of the composer, should have been the highlight of the disc. It was the only work listed on the cover of the bi-fold album and CD booklet. It is one of Janáček’s signature compositions and has all the quirky humor representative of the composer. Written for chamber choir and ten instruments, including toy drum and ocarina, it is one of the most delightful pieces of the past century. Like the Concertino, the piano has a major role here. In some ways, Říkadla with its nonsense verse is a more genial counterpart to Stravinsky’s Pribaoutki and Cat’s Cradle Songs. It is important to hear the colourful instrumentation, but the vocal lines should never be lost either. De Leeuw miscalculates this I fear by adopting tempos so fast that the words cannot be clearly enunciated. At times the instruments nearly submerge the voices. For example, in the twelfth number, “Moje žena malučičká” (“My tiny little wife”), the tenor solo is almost buried by the accompaniment and one cannot tell what he is singing. For comparisons I chose the Prague Philharmonic Choir and Czech Philharmonic musicians (Supraphon) and those of the London Sinfonietta and Chorus under Atherton (Decca). In this case the Czech performance is much slower with overall timing of 16:28, three minutes longer than De Leeuw, while Atherton’s comes in at 15:24, which for me seems ideal. The Czech account has the advantage of native musicians and singers who clearly enunciate the words, though the watery clarinet sound isn’t to all tastes. Also I found them to be just a bit too slow and bordering on the pedantic here and there. The London Sinfonietta and Chorus, on the other hand, are superb throughout, demonstrating an excellent sense of rhythm and good enunciation of the text. They are given terrific sound and will remain my first port of call when I want to hear this work. For sheer virtuosity De Leeuw’s musicians are astounding, especially at the speeds he requires, but much of the charm of these Nursery Rhymes is lost I’m afraid.

I don’t want to put too great a damper on this recording, because overall it is very fine and I know I shall return to it for the Concertino and many of the choral pieces. I hope De Leeuw decides to give us the Capriccio and the remaining Bezruč choruses as well as such other choral works, as Česká legie (The Czech Legion) and Kašpar Rucký in the near future.

Leslie Wright



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