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Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
Sinfonietta (1926) [24:41]
The Makropulos Affair - Prelude (1925) [5:10]
Katya Kabanova - Prelude (1921) [4:44]
The House of the Dead - Prelude (1929) [5:34]
Jenufa (Jealousy) - Prelude (1902) [5:42]
Taras Bulba - Rhapsody for Orchestra (1915-18) [21:49]
Pro Arte Orchestra/Charles Mackerras
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Karel Ančerl
rec. 1959-62, stereo
ALTO ALC1380 [68:00]

These might as well be old friends in their late fifties. Alto act as matchmaker and make the debutante results accessible at bargain price. These recordings, as mid-price LPs, first peeped out into a world then dominated by The Beatles. These necessarily analogue inscriptions were made by two distinctive and very different labels: English Pye and later EMI/Warner for the Mackerras items and Czech Supraphon for Taras Bulba. Not that there have not been separate CD reissues of the two source LPs from their originating labels.

These recordings signalled what was practically the emergence of Janáček in the West. Ančerl was Czech but was soon to depart to spend his latter days in Canada while Mackerras was born in the USA, brought up in Australia and made a career in the UK. Ančerl was steeped in the Czech musical scene from the outset while Mackerras followed another route. With a British Council scholarship under his belt he studied in the then Czechoslovakia with Talich. He soon underwent almost total immersion in the works of Janáček. Quite apart from his opera cycle with Decca and Söderström Mackerras then completed the circle by recording Czech music extensively with Supraphon and with Czech orchestras.

Returning in the late-1950s from Czechoslovakia, Mackerras made what was actually, or to all practical intents and purposes, the first Western world LP of Sinfonietta. Bob Auger (famed for his Nielsen with Unicorn), contracted by Pye, worked his magic. This was in a hall (Walthamstow Assembly) that, on this showing, vied with the famed acoustics of Kingsway Hall. The recording, made in July 1959, of the Pro Arte Orchestra (presumably the LSO?) remains mettlesome and with an uncanny sense of depth, snarl and subtlety. Critics at the time referred to the music’s “strangeness and beauty” and nothing has changed. The same can be said of the miniature tone poems (rather like the Liadov examples) that are the opera preludes. They are vivid mini-dramas and only suffer from a slight edge on the fff string body. There’s also an uncanny if low-key analogue ‘clunk’ at about six second into Katya Kabanova. The inevitable ‘edge’ and shade of congestion also enter into Ančerl’s Taras (review review) which the microphones and hall ensure is otherwise imparted in gorgeously appointed sound. The sweetness of the concert organ in Andrei’s Death is notable as is the trudging and stabbing clarity of Ostap’s Death. In the finale (Prophecy and Death of Taras Bulba) Ančerl and the orchestra bring out the music’s dissolute marching spirit and at 3:26 there’s a reminder of the recording’s startling spatial perspective. Gogol’s tale also drew music from Hollywood’s Waxman and Ukrainians Lysenko and Gličre.

The Sinfonietta and the four Preludes have appeared before from EMI. The label, under Warner, included the Sinfonietta in Mackerras’s Icon box and in their compendium Twentieth Century Masterpieces.

This is a good disc and well worth its modest price. However, in a tumultuous marketplace we should not forget the ‘sleeper’ that is Reference Recordings’ Serebrier’s digital Janáček: ignore its artistic and technical delights at your peril (review ~ review).

As for this Alto disc, it is so much more than a reminder of the arrival of Janáček’s music in an unsuspecting West. Well worth tracking down.

James Murray provides Alto’s enriching and detail-specific notes.

Rob Barnett

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