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Leoš JANÁÁČEK (1854-1928)
The Cunning Little Vixen (Přhody Iíšky Bystroušky), JW 1/9 (1923) [97:04]
Sinfonietta, Op 60, JW VI/18 “Sokol Festival” (1926) [22:33]
Gerald Finley (bass-baritone) – Forester; Paulina Malefane (soprano) – Forester’s Wife / Woodpecker; Peter Hoare (tenor) – Schoolmaster / Mosquito / Cock; Jan Martinik (bass) – Parson / Badger; Hanno Müller-Brachmann (bass) – Harašta; Jonah Halton (tenor) – Pásek; Anna Lapkovskaja (mezzo-soprano) – Mrs Pásková / Lapák; Poppy Dawid (treble) – Pepik; Inji Galliet-Jakoby (treble) – Frantik; Saoirse Exelby (treble) – Young Vixen Bystrouška; Lucy Crowe (soprano) - Vixen Bystrouška (Sharp-Ears); Sophia Burgos (soprano) – Fox (Gold-Spur) / Chachalka; Maeve McAllister (treble) – Cricket; Eben Watson (Treble) – Grasshopper; Olivia Solomou (treble) – Young Frog); Theo Smith (treble) – First Fox Cub; Irene Hoogveld (soprano) – Jay.
London Symphony Chorus – Hens / Forest Creatures / Voice of the Forest
LSO Discovery Voices – Fox Cubs
London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle
rec. live, 27 & 29 June, 2019 (Vixen); 18-19 September 2018 (Sinfonietta), Barbican, London. DSD
Czech text & English translation included
LSO LIVE LSO0850 SACD [63:09 + 56:28]

As Sir Simon Rattle indicates in a short note in the booklet, he has ‘history’ with The Cunning Little Vixen. As a student at the Royal Academy of Music, he took part in performances conducted by Steuart Bedford, playing the celeste and conducting the off-stage chorus. That experience, he says, made hm want to conduct opera. Though he doesn’t mention it, he has recorded the work before. He conducted it at the Royal Opera House in 1990 and EMI made a live recording which has subsequently been reissued by Chandos. I haven’t heard that performance but Jonathan Woolf found much to admire (review). That ROH performance was given in English. However, when Rattle came to do the work with the LSO, in a semi-staged production directed by Peter Sellars, he and Sellars decided that, though performing the work in English would be the easy option – especially given the number of children in the cast – the opera would work so much better in Czech; so that’s what we have here.

What a miraculous score this is! There’s so much winningly lyrical music in it and the depiction of nature in so much of the music is absolutely captivating. The orchestral side of the score is colourful, inventive and full of interest. Fortunately, in the LSO we have an orchestra that’s supremely equipped to do full justice to Janáček’s fertile imagination. And in Simon Rattle, with his famed attention to detail we have a conductor who knows how to bring out the best in the score. In saying that I must avoid giving the impression that Rattle hovers over the score with an eye for detail at the expense of the big picture: such is not the case, but he ensures we hear all the essential and absorbing elements of the score. That said, Sir Charles Mackerras is no less successful in illuminating the detail in his classic 1981 Decca recording and his feel for Janáček’s music and his adroitness in pacing it is second to none. Mackerras also has two other advantages: his performance was recorded in the more sympathetic acoustic of Vienna’s Sofiensaal and, while I don’t resile from my admiration for the LSO’s playing, there is, I fancy, a degree more piquancy in the timbre of the Vienna Philharmonic. Incidentally, Decca’s digital recording still sounds very handsome, nearly thirty years on, though there is a touch of edge to the violin tone at times.

However, anyone coming to this LSO Live recording in isolation should be well satisfied, I think. I listened to these hybrid SACDs using the stereo layer and I got very good results whether listening through loudspeakers or headphones. The sound has presence and impact and the voices are well balanced versus the orchestra. The performances were given in a semi-staged version and the recording gives a good sense of the movement across the stage, as, for example, when Harašta starts singing from a distance and enters stage left near the start of Act III.

Harašta is one of many smallish roles in this opera. Quite a number of the principals double in more than one role – though Hanno Müller-Brachmann is one who doesn’t. There really isn’t a weak link in the cast. Jan Martinik is a curmudgeonly Badger and also relishes the part of the Parson in the Inn scene in Act II. In fact, that whole scene is a conspicuous success; the earthy humour that Janáček put into the music is well brought out by both singers and orchestra. I enjoyed Peter Hoare’s characterisation of the Schoolmaster, especially when his lengthy stint of imbibing has left him, shall we say, a little confused. Elsewhere, Anna Lapkovskaja successfully doubles the roles of Mrs Pásková and Lapák.

The children who take part in this performance deserve special mention. Without exception they sing clearly and confidently and with freshness of tone. The small solo parts are all sung very well indeed and the members of LSO Discovery Voices are delightfully eager Fox Cubs. I don’t know how much work all these young singers had to do not only to master the tricky music but also to get to grips with the Czech pronunciation – quite a lot, I’m sure - but the results have amply justified their efforts. And since this was a semi-staged production, I assume they all sang from memory; no mean feat.

The three principal roles are strongly cast. Lucy Crowe is an excellent Vixen. She’s alert in her portrayal and puts across all the various strands of character that Janáček illustrated so well. Her long Act II love scene with Sophia Burgos as the Fox is the highlight of the opera, as it should be. Both singers put across the initial charm and eagerness of the encounter very well and then, as the scene develops into tenderness and then rapture, they meet all the challenges of Janáček’s writing with admirable success. The two voices are quite similar so it’s not always easy to distinguish between the two characters but I enjoyed the singing of both ladies very much, even if memories of Lucia Popp’s adorable Vixen and Eva Randová’s excellent Fox on the Mackerras set aren’t erased.

Gerald Finley is a superb Forester. Dalibor Jedlička sings the role well for Mackerras but, for my money, Finley has the edge. Not only does he characterise the role extremely well but the sheer sound of his voice is, to my ears, more rounded and appealing than Jedlička’s. I like Finley’s rustic characterisation in the Inn scene and, indeed, throughout the opera he is completely convincing. He crowns his performance with a wonderful rendition of the Forester’s big solo near the end of Act III; in this episode he and Rattle ensure that the music fairly glows.

As I indicated earlier, Sir Simon Rattle conducts the opera marvellously. I’ve already spoken of his attention to the detail of the score but the other thing that shines through is his love for the music. He brings out all the warmth and lyricism in Janáček’s writing and he also instils a strong sense of dramatic purpose into the performance. The many orchestral interludes are a highlight of the set, especially since the LSO is in such fine form. Having said that, I do have the impression that Mackerras’s approach is a little tauter at times and that may be reflected in the crude measurement of the clock: the Mackerras performance plays for some 89 minutes compared with Sir Simon’s 97 minutes. I hasten to say, though, that at no time in the Rattle performance did I feel that the approach was too spacious; I found his conducting thoroughly convincing.

This, then, is a very fine account of The Cunning Little Vixen. Listening to it for review purposes has been a delight and has made me realise yet again what a humane and witty score it is. My admiration for the classic Mackerras set remains undimmed but I’m delighted to be able to add this perceptive and affectionate Rattle version to sit alongside the Decca recording on my shelves.

As a substantial filler, we get a 2018 performance of the Sinfonietta. This was given at a concert at which my Seen and heard colleague Claire Seymour was present (review). I’ve owned for many years the 1982 recording that Rattle made for EMI with the Philharmonia. I see that my colleague, Brian Reinhart, wasn’t too impressed with EMI’s sonics (review). I’ve not been so bothered by the issues he identified but one can’t escape the fact that the recording is now nearly 40 years old. This new performance is very good indeed. I like the punchy brass and incisive timpani in the opening Fanfare, while at the start of the second movement the woodwind are pleasingly pungent in tone and spiky in delivery.

The very first time I played the disc I had the impression that the start of the third movement – and the reprise of the material at its close – was a bit on the slow side. However, repeated hearings have lessened that concern – and Rattle adopted a similar pace in 1982. In the present performance, there’s a dreamy, romantic quality to the opening, which is most attractive. The 1982 Philharmonia performance, while very good, doesn’t quite match that quality. Later, the LSO horns, their playing ever-higher, lead the performance excitingly to the movement’s climax. In the last movement, all the exiting extremes of Janáček’s scoring register really well, especially the brazen woodwind, until at 3:59 the trumpets thrillingly herald the return of the opening Fanfare. Here, the supernumerary brass and the timpani make a strong impression; one has the sense that the players are placed behind the orchestra – as Claire Seymour’s concert review confirms. The brass instruments make a terrific sound and, importantly, they don’t overwhelm the rest of the orchestra. That said, on the 1982 recording the listener has the sense of the brass players projecting out into the acoustic of Kingsway Hall whereas the Barbican is a bit more confined by comparison. However, don’t be put of by that; this exciting account of Sinfonietta is a very welcome and significant part of this LSO Live set.

It only remains to say that LSO Live’s documentation is excellent. The booklet includes a very good essay and synopsis by Jan Smaczny, the full libretto and translation, and all the usual biographies. There is also a small selection of picture taken during the semi-staged performance of The Cunning Little Vixen. Seeing those heightened my regret that this set wasn’t a DVD of the performance but I guess that would have been prohibitively expensive to produce. As it is, the audio version will do very nicely indeed.

John Quinn



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