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Leos JANÁCEK (1854-1928)
Eva Urbanová (soprano) Sárka
Peter Straka (tenor) Ctirad
Ivan Kusnjer (baritone) Premysl
Jaroslav Brezina (tenor) Lumír
Prague Philharmonic Choir; Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Charles Mackerras
Rec 16-20 August 2000, Rudolfinum Studio, Prague
SUPRAPHON SU 3485-2 [64.04 minutes]
£12.95  AmazonUK  £11.99 AmazonUS

Janácek composed this, his first opera, during the 1880s, completing the draft in 1887. But the work had to wait some forty years for its first performance. The chief reason was his failure to gain copyright permission to use the text, as a result of which the score lay dormant until 1918, when with his pupil Osvald Chlubna the composer revised it and prepared it for a possible performance. In her absorbing essay in the accompanying booklet, Alena Nemcova of the Janácek Foundation in Brno explains that Janácek put all these problems down to 'a misunderstanding'.

The first performance eventually took place in Brno, on 11 November 1925. Beforehand the composer had exclaimed: "My Sárka! All that is in it is so akin to my recent works!" In other words, what we have here is an early opera revised by an experienced composer who had by the time of the revision become one of the greatest opera composers the world had known. Alena Nemcova describes this as "a most interesting mixture of styles." And it is true that every bar sounds like the work of this composer.

Sir Charles Mackerras always wanted to record the full Janácek canon when he was at work on his recording project with Decca and the Vienna Philharmonic. And now he has achieved his aim of presenting the first ever performance of this little known work. The music moves rapidly, and sometimes one is left with the impression that the material is under-developed, though it is never short of character. The story of the warrior-maiden Sárka is most widely known through Smetana's symphonic poem (from Ma Vlast, 1876), but there is also an opera by Zdenek Fibich (1850-1900) which post-dates Janácek's by several years. We think of Janácek as a 20th century composer, and rightly so, but it is salutary to remember that he was 46 years old when the century began.

Central to the opera is the intense and striking love duet between Sárka and Ctirad, the more powerful for its brevity. This, together with the impressive closing scene, is the finest music in the score.

The performance is excellent, the recording may lack a little in depth of perspective, but is still highly satisfactory. And the leading roles are taken with the utmost conviction: Eva Urbanová's Sárka is matched by the ardent Ctirad of Peter Straka. With the magnificent playing of the Czech Philharmonic under Mackerras, this is an issue which adds considerably to our understanding of one of the great opera composers.

Terry Barfoot

Peter Grahame Woolf has also been listening to this disc

There are several good reasons to purchase this release, a tribute to human persistence and dedication. The young Janacek launched his Brno Musical Letters in 1884, became a diligent opera critic and then composed a concise three act opera of his own three years later, orchestrating the first two acts by 1888, before consigning it to a 'bottom drawer', where it lay until he rescued it thirty years later after the success of Jenufa. By then he was better placed to have his first, and still dear first born operatic child brought to the stage, with the last act orchestrated by a pupil. It still remained unpublished until the composer's death, and only in the late 1990s was it finally, with the support of Sir Charles Mackerras, edited by a young Brno musicologist, published and recorded.

Though its high romantic subject and style is far from that of the key Janacek operas, it shows aspects of his development and many recognisable personal fingerprints. It is a bloody tale of revenge, love and betrayal, with a chorus of murderous women warriors who bring about the fateful dénouement. All the parts are well taken and the performance and its recording are vividly compelling. The love scene between the doomed protagonists is truly moving and Sárka is a worthy addition to the Mackerras/Janacek discography. Fitting as it does onto one Supraphon disc, there is really no cause to hesitate!

Peter Grahame Woolf

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