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Leoš JANÁČEK (1851-1928)
Mša glagolskaja (Glagolitic Mass) (1926-7) [40:35]
Alexander ZEMLINSKY (1871-1942)
Psalm 83 (1900) [12:18]
Erich Wolfgang KORNGOLD (1897-1957)
Passover Psalm, Op 30 (1941) [8:23]
Eva Urbanová (soprano); Marta Beňačková (mezzo-soprano); Vladimir Bogachov (tenor); Richard Novák (bass); Thomas Trotter (organ)
Slovak Philharmonic Choir
Wiener Philharmoniker/Riccardo Chailly
rec. June 1997, Konzerthaus, Vienna
Text and translations (English, French & German) included
Presto CD
DECCA 460 213-2 [61:35]

Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass is a magnificent creation. The music includes many passages of delightful music as well as some supremely thrilling episodes, such as the end of the Credo, when the level of physical excitement sweeps all before it. Riccardo Chailly’s recording is one that I hadn’t previously heard and so I was delighted to find that Presto Classical have licenced it for their manufacture-to-order service. The attraction of the disc is all the greater because Chailly chose to include two rare works, both of which were new to me. The Zemlinsky and Korngold pieces here received their world premiere recordings. Furthermore, there are connections between the three works on the programme: in 1929 Zemlinsky conducted the first performance of the Glagolitic Mass outside Czechoslovakia; and Korngold was one of Zemlinsky’s pupils.

Chailly’s account of the Glagolitic Mass opens imposingly with a very full orchestral sound in the Introduction (for ease of reference I’ll use English or Latin terminology in this review). Decca had long experience of recording the Vienna Philharmonic – not least in the series of Janáček operas under Sir Charles Mackerras – and in this movement their engineers bring out the strength and tonal depth of the orchestra. Throughout the performance the VPO makes a contribution that is, by turns, sonorous or agile, depending on the demands of the music

The singing of the Slovak Philharmonic Choir, a professional ensemble, I think, is a decided asset to this performance. Of course, it helps enormously to have a choir comprised of native Czech speakers. Their singing is at all times incisive and frequently powerful – though they are equally impressive when singing softly. The Decca engineers have balanced the choir very well in relation to the orchestra; they don’t dominate the proceedings but neither are they too backward in the aural picture.

The soloists have their moments but I also have one or two reservations. Soprano Eva Urbanová is dramatic and full-blooded in the Kyrie and in general she makes a fine job of Janáček’s challenging vocal lines. However, in the Gloria I was slightly disconcerted by what seemed to be a tendency to ‘peck’ at the top notes in phrases. When I came to do my comparisons later this impression was reinforced. The other major role is given to the tenor. Vladimir Bogachov has plenty of vocal heft and his singing is a major factor in an exciting conclusion of the Gloria. His big moment comes towards the end of the Credo where he proclaims belief in ‘one holy, catholic and apostolic Church’. Here, Bogachov’s ringing tone is truly exciting. However, I was less convinced in parts of the Sanctus and Agnus Dei where Bogachov lacks subtlety in my view: his singing is too often stentorian. The bass and, especially, the alto soloists have much less to do, but they acquit themselves well.

There is, effectively, one other soloist: the organist. Here, Thomas Trotter, a well-known exponent of this part, is playing the Rieger organ in the Vienna Konzerthaus. It’s a mighty, five-manual instrument and it makes a telling contribution to this performance. You can hear the organ reinforcing the textures in a well-judged balance on several occasions. Trotter makes a thrilling solo interjection in the Credo, just before the choir sings of the Crucifixion. Even more exciting is his solo in the penultimate movement. Here, the organ is really let off the leash and Trotter injects driving energy and a considerable degree of clarity into the music. It’s a terrific performance.

Riccardo Chilly conducts the Mass with a great sense of the music’s drama and the work’s power is definitely realised. He’s also keenly alive to the more delicate passages. Heard in isolation, this is a performance of the Glagolitic Mass that has a lot going for it.

However, once I’d done my preliminary listening, I made some comparisons against tried and trusted versions of the work. These comparisons reminded me of some essential features of the work that are missing from Chailly’s performance. I selected as my benchmarks two well-established classic versions: the 1963 performance conducted by Karel Ančerl and the 1984 CD performance conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras; both of these are Supraphon releases and both were made in Prague’s Rudolfinum, the Mackerras being a live account. The Ančerl was appraised some years ago by Robert Hugill (review). He had reservations about the soloists and I share many of them, though I find the tenor, Beno Blachut, rather more convincing overall than Chailly’s tenor. We’ve never published a standalone review of the Mackerras recording but when my colleague Leslie Wright wrote a detailed comparative review of several recordings a few years ago he admired the Mackerras – and the Ančerl – very much.

All three conductors are very well served by their respective choirs, though Chailly’s chorus is recorded with greater impact. There are pros and cons to the various sets of soloists: on balance I think Mackerras has the best line-up. Where I think the biggest difference lies is in the orchestral sound. The Vienna Philharmonic offers classy playing for Chailly. However, their sound is a bit too richly upholstered when heard in comparison to the leaner and much more distinctive sound of the Czech Philharmonic. I also think that, excellently though Chailly conducts, Ančerl and Mackerras more often have me on the edge of my seat.

And then there’s the ‘wild card’: a 1999 recording made in Brno, conducted by Leoš Svárovský. The performers may not be internationally renowned names but their recording is the Real Deal. I was first alerted to it by an extremely enthusiastic review by Dan Morgan and I see that Marc Bridle was no less keen on it (review). This performance has an air of freshness and exhilaration about it and the real stamp of authenticity. Anyone who loves the Glagolitic Mass should hear this version.

All that said, the question of couplings also has to be considered. Mackerras offers no coupling, so at 39:55 his disc has a very short playing time. Ančerl and Svárovský each give us another Janáček work. Chailly has been much more adventurous.

Zemlinsky made his setting of verses from Psalm 83 in 1900 but I learned from Kenneth Chalmers’ notes that the work was not performed until 1987; I wonder why it had to wait so long. It’s an intense setting for choir and what sounds like a large orchestra. Early on in the score there’s a short part for a solo soprano and towards the end a number of solo voices are heard. In the absence of any specific credits, I infer that the singers in question – all of them good – are members of the chorus. Much of Zemlinsky’s writing for both the chorus and the orchestra is bold and dramatic – the words, calling on God to use his power against his enemies, invite nothing less. In the last few minutes Zemlinsky writes an extended fugal passage which builds in intensity until the work achieves an exultant conclusion with choir and orchestra going full pelt. Arguably, the composer tries too hard at times in this score but it’s well worth hearing and Chailly leads a performance that burns with conviction.

Eva Urbanová reappears as soloist in Korngold’s Passover Psalm, joining the choir and orchestra. This is a very interesting work, not least in terms of its scoring. Korngold dispenses with woodwind instruments altogether but allots prominent parts to solo violin, harp and piano; the latter is particularly to the fore in this performance, and to excellent effect. The text was compiled by Rabbi Jacob Sonderling, who commissioned the work; he used Haggadah texts. The music is slow, expansive and prayerful and includes some rapturous passages for the solo soprano; Eva Urbanová sings her solos very well. As was the case with the Zemlinsky piece, Riccardo Chailly secures a performance of great commitment, especially in the closing pages where both music and performers exhibit no little fervour. I was very pleased to make the acquaintance of this short, sincere work through this fine recording.

So, how should I sum up this disc? As I’ve indicated, I think that some other versions of the Glagolitic Mass offer a more idiomatic realisation of Janáček’s masterpiece. However, I found much to admire in Riccardo Chailly’s way with the music and even if the Vienna Philharmonic don’t offer authentic Czech tang their playing still commands great respect. The soloists are good and the choral contribution is superb. In addition, the Decca engineering remains impressive. In addition, Chailly gives you the opportunity to hear two very interesting rarities as well. I’m glad that Presto Classical have licenced this worthwhile disc.

John Quinn

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