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Springtime in Yugoslavia
Fran LHOTKA (1883-1962)
The Devil in the Village-Suite (1939) [25:03]
Krešimir BARANOVIĆ (1894-1975)
The Gingerbread Heart – Ballet Music (1924) [20:46]
Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
Lachian Dances (1888 rev.1925] [22:32]
Josip ŠTOLCER-SLAVENSKI (1896-1955)
Simfonia Orijenta ‘Religiofonija’ (1934) [39:28]
Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
Taras Bulba – Rhapsody for Orchestra (1918) [26:21]
Melanija Bugarinović (mezzo-soprano), Dušan Cvejič (tenor), Dušan Popovič (baritone), Žarko Cvejič (bass)
Belgrade Philharmonic Chorus
Orchestra of the National Opera House, Zagreb/Fran Lhotka (Lhotka)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Francois Huybrechts (Janáček)
Belgrade Philharmonic Orchestra/Živojin Zdraković (Štolcer-Slavenski), Krešimir Baranović (Baranović)
rec. 1955, National Theatre Zagreb, Croatia; 1971, Kingsway Hall, London (Janáček)
Janáček in stereo, others mono
ELOQUENCE 4840200 [2 CDs: 139:04]

These two CD’s form a re-issue that I judge to be enterprising and interesting, mainly because they introduce to the CD catalogue 1955-vintage recordings of three works by unknown (to the West) composers, who were important in Croatia/Yugoslavia in the early 20th century, and a recording that appeared on a relatively neglected 1971 Decca LP of Janacek works, produced in the unrivalled acoustic of The Kingsway Hall.

The informative booklet goes to some length to inform us that the recording engineer and producer of the 1955 Zagreb sessions was one Gerald Severn, an individual born in Moscow, who had ties behind the Iron Curtain. For reasons now lost, most of the Decca recording team left Severn alone in Zagreb, where, acting as producer and balance engineer, he recorded Boris Godunov and the pieces presented here. It would seem that, back in London, the Decca engineers dismissed the recorded sound of Godunov as “not fit for transfer to disc at the moment”, and perhaps felt the same about these pieces as well.

Now, I have heard quite a few Decca recordings from the early to mid-50’s, and most are characterised by sonic vividness, mitigated by a ‘thin’, sometimes strident quality to the strings and woodwind, especially in the upper registers. Tuttis can also sound congested with the sound frequently lacking warmth and bloom. There are, of course, exceptions, but as it happens, these characteristics are in evidence here. By the time 1971 arrived, the difference that the passing of 15 years made in sound quality is dramatically evident when compared with the Janáček pieces.

I had never previously heard of Fran Lhotka, Krešimir Baranović or Josip Štolcer-Slavenski, and on this showing, my ignorance is my loss.

Lhotka was of Czech birth, and studied composition under Dvořák, but his career blossomed in Croatia, where he became principal horn at the Zagreb Opera, and then as a professor at the city’s conservatoire. He is credited with revising and revolutionising the county’s music education with the same degree of success that Kodály achieved in Hungary. His suite The Devil in the Village, which was extracted from the ballet in 1939, some eight years after the work’s premiere, became a firm local favourite and remained in the repertoire for sixty years.

At this stage of his musical development, his style was influenced by regional folkloric traditions, and is as colourful as anything that may be found in Bartók, but with the gentler cast we hear in Kodály. His orchestration is highly imaginative and entertaining. The scene at the Witches Sabbath vividly evokes a group of drunken revellers, and the subsequent orgy, begins with a piccolo-led dance, before briefly interrupted by a lyrical episode. The last section, an “escape from hell and general rejoicing”, develops into a furious orchestral whirlwind. Throughout the suite, there are stretches of neo-classicism, reminding me of Petrushka, but also of relaxed romanticism. It may be that a harshness I detect in the scoring is due to the sometimes-congested recording, noticeable at climaxes, and so I would love to hear it in a state-of-the-art recording. The orchestra play enthusiastically, though occasionally inaccurately, under the composer’s baton.

Krešimir Baranović was born in Croatia; he attended the Academy of Music in Vienna (1912-1914) and later that in Berlin. From 1915 to 1943 he was the conductor of the Croatian Opera in Zagreb and became the director of it from 1929 to 1940; during which time it reached very high standards of performance. After leaving Zagreb in the first years of the war he was imprisoned in one of the most dreadful concentration camps in Croatia. In 1943 he became conductor of the Bratislava Radio Orchestra and in 1945 he also functioned as director of the Bratislava Opera. From 1946 to 1964 he was teacher of conducting and orchestration at the Academy of Music in Belgrade, and from 1951 to 1961 director and conductor of the Belgrade Philharmonic Orchestra.

One of his most highly regarded works is the ballet recorded here, and he received inspiration for it from a popular Croatian folk tale and from the folk music of the Hrvatsko zagorje region in northern Croatia. As with Lhotka, he embraced neo-classicism, tempering it with nationalistic rhythm and colour. This work is regarded as the cornerstone in the development of Croatian ballet. I must say that I don’t find all that much aural difference between his music and that of Lhotka, but it remains attractive, with much rhythmic verve and orchestral colour. Naturally enough, the same comments with regard to the recorded sound apply, and his conducting of his own music is spirited.

Josip Štolcer-Slavenski was born in Croatia and was contemporaneous with Lhotka and Baranović, His musical education was interrupted by WW1, and by his subsequent entry into the family business, but he did return to music when he entered Novak’s masterclasses at the Belgrade Conservatory. In 1925 he moved to Belgrade, where he remained for the rest of his life, holding posts at the Stankovič School of Music and then the Belgrade Academy. His music is said to incorporate the folk music of Medjimurje in north-western Croatia whilst at the same time exhibiting his interests in polytonalty, atonality, and micro intervals, electronic music and the laws of acoustics as well as pentatonic scales. In later life his interests broadened to take in the whole of Croatian Folk Music as well as the mystical and ritualistic uses of music.

His Simfonia Orijenta ‘Religiofonija’ as presented to us here, is considered to be his masterpiece, and I have to say that it is unlike anything I have ever heard.

In these days, anyone attempting to present a musical portrait (for want of a better word) of Paganism, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and a general ‘religious yearning’, would run the risk of inflaming social media opinion, to say the least. In 1934, things were different as far as world-wide communications were concerned, and Štolcer-Slavenski’s symphonic cantata won him success at home and abroad. Before I attempt to describe the music, I must point out that the 1955 recording is vivid, with the superb solo voices quite forward in relation to most of the orchestra, but unfortunately the prominent part for the large chorus has overloaded the recording medium, and the sound breaks up during the many climaxes. I should think that this is the fault of the original recording engineer, and not the digital transfer.

The work is in seven sections, each of which has been given two identifiers, which I quote as per the booklet. It opens with ‘Pagans (Prehistoric Music)’ which begins with the xylophone accompanying wordless cries and shouts from the bass and/or baritone soloist and chorus, the latter tending to chant, presumably intended to represent some sort of pagan worship. The composer’s designation of this as ‘prehistoric’ is hardly accurate.

The second track purports to represent ‘Hebrews (Musica Coloristica)’ and opens with a purely instrumental section where modern instruments are used to imitate the sounds of the instruments assumed by Štolcer-Slavenski to be of the Jewish tradition; the psaltery, chalil and shofar. This is followed by a bass solo and chorus intoning (pseudo?) Jewish ritual – no indication is given for the source of the words, which as far as the chorus is concerned, are largely indecipherable, except that is, for ‘Amen’.

The third track, at almost fifteen minutes is easily the longest in the work, and represents ‘Buddhists (Musica Architectonica)’. It begins in the orchestra, with chimes intermingled with solo cello and occasionally, quiet tam-tam strokes. It has a definite ‘oriental’ cast to it, but is hardly in the style of many works of the latter part of the 19th century, which purported to represent music of the orient. Eventually a bass voice enters intoning a chant with responses from the chorus. The orchestra gradually joins them and the soundscape becomes fuller and increasingly fervent. Then tenor and mezzo voices join in and slowly climb to reach a frenzy, after which things briefly calm down and become more melodic, less chant-like, subsequently rising to a climax in a unison chorus accompanied by the orchestra. The section finishes with a solo violin, slowly winding things down, and dying away to silence.

It is followed by a track representing Christians (Musica Melodica). The music starts softly with the chorus singing “Kyrie Eleison “, quickly becoming more fervent and simpler with repeated chants of “Eleison”. The music becomes more vigorous still as “Christe Eleison” is sung, once again becoming fervent as this phrase becomes truncated to “Eleison”, sung by massed voices. At the end the music quietens with a fading clarinet phrase.

Next up is Islam, or as written in the booklet, ‘Moslems (Musica Articulatiae)’, and the composer, naturally enough, begins with the call of the tenor muezzin accompanied by droning instrumentation. This section is quite hypnotic until the muezzin stops his call, and percussion and woodwind intone a vaguely middle Eastern passage of rising intensity, which the male chorus eventually join. The whole thing becomes more and more fervent as the drums drive them on, until an unexpected silence brings it to a sudden end. The penultimate section is called ‘Free Thought (Musica Polyphonica)’, and is purely orchestral. The booklet tells us that this is “not a Nietzschean statement of self-determination, but a more Scriabinesque paean to a universal or at any rate, pan-human spirit”. Then we have the finale, a ‘Hymn of Toil (Musica Harmoniae)’ as the composer put it. The text – his own – is not given, but it seems that he intended it to express the will to triumph over the adversity experienced in the contemporary Soviet idiom of Ivan Dzerzhinsky and Shaporin. It is an orchestral cum choral piece, in which the principal word appears to be ‘slava’. In style, it sounds to be a straightforward triumphal chorus that, paradoxically, we might expect to hear at the end of a soviet propaganda piece lauding Stalin or Lenin, though I have no doubt that this is the last thing that the composer would have wanted his audience to think. It is the most traditionally celebratory of all the sections of the work.

Given the rarity of the three other works here, I doubt that anyone would buy this two-cd set for the Janacek works that act as ‘fillers’. Recorded by Decca a year or so after the much-admired DG Kubelik/BRSO Janacek Sinfonietta and Taras Bulba, I decided to compare this ‘Taras’ with the Kubelik, which happens to be the recording from which I first came to like Janacek’s music. I don’t think that there is much doubt that the Kingsway Hall Decca recording is technically superior to the DG; not for nothing was the hall renowned as a recording venue – it facilitates the playing of the LPO in aurally splendid form, the strings are silky, the brass rasps and the tubular bells clang , and if that were all that needs to be taken into account, this Huybrechts performance would win. However, there must be a reason why it does not appear to have surfaced on CD before now, and I suspect that the mannered performance, most evident in the first movement reveals all. Huybrechts is simply slow; occasionally quite intense, but slow and at times definitely dragging. It is a tribute to the orchestra that they keep it all together. The Kubelik performance takes 8:20 for the first movement, the Huybrechts, 10:21 – a 25% increase! The other two movements are much less problematic, but by then the damage has been done. The recording of the early Lachian Dances has been re-issued before as part of a multi-cd set, and it is a recommendable performance, again in splendid sound.

To summarise, if you are interested in very out-of-the-way Eastern European pre-WW2 music, these discs are a must-have; indispensable in fact, despite the sonic limitations of the 1955 recordings – and I’ve heard much, much worse from around that period. The booklet notes are not very detailed about the music, but discuss a fair amount about the composers, and the circumstances relating to the making of the recordings, including colour reproductions of the two original LP sleeves. I hope that back in 1955, reviewers gave Decca deserved congratulations for their willingness to venture to Zagreb.

Jim Westhead

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