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Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
Glagolitic Mass (ed. Jiří Zahrádka) (1927) [41:27]
Sinfonietta (1926) [22:54]
Taras Bulba (1915-18) [22:50]
The Fiddler’s Child (1912) [13:01]
Hibla Gerzmava (soprano), Veronika Hajnová (alto), Stuart Neill (tenor), Jan Martiník (bass), Aleš Bárta (organ), Prague Philharmonic Choir, Czech Philharmonic / Jiří Bělohlávek
rec. Rudolfinum, Prague, 2013-2017
Texts in Old Church Slavonic with English, French, and German translation included
DECCA 4834080 [64:27+35:51]

These performances of Janáček were some of the last recordings that Jiří Bělohlávek made before his untimely death in 2017 and can thus serve as a worthy memorial to a conductor whose specialty in the music of his homeland was second to none. Indeed, the Sinfonietta here was recorded just a few months before the eminent conductor died in May of last year and could well be his last recording.

The edition of the Glagolitic Mass employed here is the same one Tomáš Netopil used in his premiere recording with the Prague Radio Symphony of the September 1927 version. See my review of that recording, which garnered a Recording of the Month from me in 2015, where I described in some detail the differences between that version and the other so-called “original” score as reconstructed by British scholar Paul Wingfield (review). To my knowledge, this is Bělohlávek’s first - at least commercial - recording of the work in any version.

As far as I can tell without the score, Bělohlávek follows Netopil in nearly every aspect. The timpani solo at 2:41-2:46 in the new account of the Slava sounds like the same notes as those being played with Netopil (at 2:22-2:30), but are more convincing here—or maybe I am now just used to them. Divergent, however, and somewhat puzzling are the differences in the text in the Svet movement when the soloists enter with “Blagoslovl’en gredyj vo ime Gospod’ne. The phrase is repeated in its entirety by each of the soloists in the standard published version and in Wingfield’s edition, but not here. In Netopil’s account the whole phrase is repeated except for the tenor’s second solo. There the tenor sings only “Blagoslovl’en gredyj.” This practice is followed by Bělohlávek, but also with the tenor’s first and bass’s second solo. The phrase is truncated even further in the bass’s first solo to “Blagoslovl’en” in the new recording. This makes little sense for the soloist to sing just “blessed” without anything following it. Netopil noted in his account that he altered some things in the score to correspond to the published version he felt made better sense. I am wondering if this text was one of them. The barely adequate notes in the CD’s booklet make no mention of this—only that the performance is based on the 1927 Zahrádka edition. In any case, it is a minor blemish, but one that irritates on repetition, in a performance and recording every bit as good as Netopil’s.

If anything, Bělohlávek’s account is even more impressive overall. The soloists here are superior to Netopil’s, good as his are, and better than those on most recordings I’ve heard. They are all appropriately operatic, but without a trace of Slavic wobble. Even the bass, who can turn blustery in many performances, including Netopil’s, is fine. The Czech Philharmonic is second to none when it comes to Janáček’s music and outdoes itself here. Some of the low brass parts—the horns especially—have greater presence than I have heard them in other accounts, for example, in the Gospodi pomiluj second movement after 1:30. In the final Intrada, not also played at the beginning as is the case in the Wingfield edition, when the horns have the main theme they are more pronounced than in any other recording I have heard—as they should be. The Prague Philharmonic Choir, which practically owns this work, and the organist are the same as in Netopil’s recording and there is little to choose between the accounts there. Aleš Bárta’s solos in the Veruju movement and the penultimate one are indeed magisterial. For the most part Bělohlávek chooses broader tempos than Netopil. Only the Slava and Intrada are faster here. Indeed, the Intrada is taken with real gusto at a tempo similar to Rafael Kubelik’s, whose recording was my introduction to the work. I generally prefer this movement to be more measured, as Netopil and Karel Ančerl interpret it, but I must say that Bělohlávek is quite thrilling. Moreover, Decca’s recorded sound is really stunning, having greater presence than Supraphon’s for Netopil where you need to crank up the volume to achieve the full effect. At the same time, the timpani, though clear, seem to be recorded more distantly than for Netopil. So, it is a case of swings and roundabouts when it comes to this version of the Glagolitic Mass. As I noted in my review of the Netopil account, there are plenty of good reasons to prefer either the standard published version (which in the Bärenreiter edition adds the fourteen bars missing from the old Universal one), especially Sir Charles Mackerras’s 1984 Supraphon recording, or the Wingfield version (preferably the Mackerras DVD) that is quite different from the others. Readers are referred to my Comparative Review of Glagolitic Mass Recordings (review), though there have been one or two newer recordings not discussed there, including Edward Gardner’s that was enthusiastically received on this website (review ~ review).

Bělohlávek recorded the other works in the set with the Czech Philharmonic earlier for Chandos, and there are accounts by him of the Sinfonietta and Taras Bulba from 1977 with the Brno Philharmonic, as part of an 8-CD Bělohlávek retrospective that I have not heard (review). The Fiddler’s Child, on the other hand, has not appeared that often. I have always enjoyed the performances on Chandos, but these new ones on Decca are superior in every respect.

The Sinfonietta and Taras Bulba have been very popular in recent years and received a good number of excellent recordings. While I have admired Bělohlávek’s Chandos account of the Sinfonietta, my preference has been for one or another of the recordings Mackerras made. My introduction to this work came with Mackerras’s first recording, from 1959, with the Pro Arte Orchestra. While that one provided a ton of excitement with its very rawness and lively recording, it is admittedly a rather limited view of the work and its sound now leaves much to be desired. Mackerras went on to establish what for me was a benchmark with his brilliant Vienna Philharmonic accounts of the Sinfonietta and Taras Bulba for Decca, whereas others preferred the more lyrical, warmer performances by Kubelik and the Bavarian Radio Symphony on DG. Mackerras followed his Vienna accounts with those by the Czech Philharmonic for Supraphon that improved at least partly on the earlier Decca recordings, though it has to be admitted that these are in some respects lower in voltage. Best of all, however, is the live performance of the Sinfonietta Mackerras gave with the BBC Philharmonic at the 2007 BBC Proms in the Royal Albert Hall, unfortunately available only as a BBC Music magazine cover CD. There he showed greater expression and allowed more flexibility in tempos than elsewhere, and the orchestra was with him all the way. For a live recording, the sound is quite impressive, too.

As a performance and recording, this new Sinfonietta by Bělohlávek is hard to fault. The playing of the Czech Philharmonic is downright glorious in all departments with vivid sound to match. The recording makes his earlier one for Chandos seem rather distant and generalized. I like the slight vibrato the tenor tubas employ at the beginning of the opening fanfare and in the last movement when it returns, contributing to the Slavic flavour of the work. Also, I find his faster tempo for the fourth movement more convincing than the more deliberate one of some other conductors, including Mackerras. On the other hand, the more incisive and clearer timpani on the Mackerras recordings are not really matched here—effective though they are. There are so many fine accounts of the popular Sinfonietta, including Antoni Wit’s with the Warsaw Philharmonic on Naxos accompanying his Glagolitic Mass recording, that they would require an exhaustive analysis to do them justice. Needless to say, Bělohlávek’s is up there with the best of the competition.

The same may be said for Taras Bulba, which has appeared as a disc mate for a number of recordings of the Sinfonietta. As with the Sinfonietta, Bělohlávek’s remake of Taras Bulba is superior in all regards to his Chandos account. Some of this has to do with the closer and more present sound, but also the Czech Philharmonic’s instrumental solos are superior. This may have to do to at least some degree to the better instruments they are now playing. At any rate, the English horn at the beginning of the first movement, and the cello and clarinet solos in the third movement are particularly evocative. I compared this with the Mackerras accounts on Decca and Supraphon. While there is little to choose overall, I know I will be returning to this new Taras Bulba—even if the organ’s underpinning in the last movement provides a more solid foundation with Mackerras. I should also mention Wit’s resplendent performance superbly recorded with the Warsaw Philharmonic (Naxos), as coupled with the Lachian and Moravian Dances.

There is much less competition when it comes to The Fiddler’s Child, a “ballad” for violin and orchestra loosely based on a gruesome poem by Svatopluk Čech. Mackerras, for whatever reason, never recorded the piece. Bělohlávek recorded it twice, the first time for Chandos on the same disc as Taras Bulba, and now for Decca. His primary competitor here is Netopil with the Prague Radio Symphony on a CD I reviewed, which also includes The Ballad of Blaník, a short tone poem from 1919 that deserves greater exposure than it has thus far received. (review). Both that work and The Fiddler’s Child also appear on a Hyperion disc with the BBC Scottish Symphony under Ilan Volkov. While the Volkov performances are certainly good, the best thing about that CD is the accompanying booklet with informative notes by Janáček expert, Nigel Someone. Both Bělohlávek’s and Netopia’s accounts of The Fiddler’s Child are in a class above Volkov’s and bring out the drama explicit in the score very well. Bělohlávek’s latest performance is stunning with nonpareil playing by the Czech Philharmonic musicians, not only the solo violin but also the woodwinds—oboe, bass clarinet, and bassoon. The depth of the strings is likewise something to behold and the harp projects well. The climax after 10:30 is indeed thrilling.

I cannot imagine a better introduction to Janacek’s music and a more fitting tribute to Jiří Bělohlávek than this new Decca production. Although the program notes leave much to be desired, the performances and sound are little short of ideal.

Leslie Wright

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