Here is an early contender for 2013 Disappointment of the Year. Leoš
music is flourishing in a worldwide revival, and great new recordings of his
seem to arrive every year. The Glagolitic Mass
is one of the
century’s greatest works, a fierce and exultant celebration of life,
is a thrilling work of symphonic storytelling. Marek
is a very good conductor - I especially love his Brahms - and the Berlin
Symphony needs no introduction. PentaTone’s sound engineers are
for some of the most opulent, cutting-edge recordings of our day. This is
of my favorite music in the world; it’s very personal to me and I love
And yet this is a disaster.
Let’s start with the shorter work. Taras Bulba
to a fairly good start, with a nice cor anglais solo and interesting,
flowing pacing, very different from the sound cultivated on Antoni
Wit’s recent recording, which was one of my 2012 albums of the year. I
was a little afraid Wit had been one-upped, but then the wheels really came
off the Janowski recording, and the doors fell off, and the engine burst
into flames. More or less any fast or loud bits of this performance are as
energetic, strong-willed, bold and exciting as a bowl of Jell-O. Especially
offensive is the climax of the first movement, which is supposed to be a
battle and a death scene, after all, but the entire brass section sounds
pitiful and apologetic.
The second movement is dainty and inoffensive, like someone took the
story of Taras Bulba
and made it safe for kids. Where is the
savagery? Where is the passion? The finale gets off to a bad start with a
squawky woodwind misfire, it’s too fast to let any sort of dramatic
tension build but not especially exciting either, and when the trombones
finally assert themselves at 2:30, one of them flubs badly.
Problems with the Glagolitic Mass
are similarly rife.
It’s especially frustrating because this is one of the very few
recordings not to cut or simplify the music. For those unfamiliar with this
music’s sad performing history, here is a one-paragraph summary (feel
free to skip it): Janáček’s original score is completely
daft, including multiple sets of kettle drums, wild key changes, and one
section in which the orchestral sections play to three different beats at
once. Naturally this struck the performers of the 1920s as impossible; they
could not keep time with everyone in a different rhythm, and the conductor
could not keep three times at once because he had only two arms. And then
there’s the moment in the “Credo” where the clarinetist is
required to play an offstage solo, dash back onstage, and start playing
again five seconds later. In the face of criticism, Janáček made
significant reductions, simplifications, and cuts. Only a few decades ago
did the intrepid Charles Mackerras restore the original score on CD, a
recording I don’t much like since it is extremely fast. In other
words, we remain starved for choice in this masterwork.
So the fact that Marek Janowski chooses to play the original version
of the score, preparing his orchestra for the complicated and often madcap
writing, is admirable. Nothing else is. The orchestra’s lame trombones
produce instant disappointment whenever they are asked to play (I say
“are asked to” because I often can’t hear them).
“Uvod” (Introduction) is needlessly fast, while
“Slava” (Gloria) has a slowness which drains its sparkle and
liveliness. The non-existence of the trumpet fanfares at 5:25 in
“Slava” and 11:15 in “Veruju” is unforgiveable.
American tenor Stuart Neill sounds effortful and strained, like
he’s lifting weights. In his long solo in “Veruju”
(Credo), his unfamiliarity with the language is obvious and awkward to hear.
Hard to blame an American tenor for not knowing how to sing medieval
Bosnian, but then why cast an American tenor? Armenian-born and
Russian-trained bass Arutjun Kotchinian has a better handle on Slavic
diction, but he sounds like he forgot to take the cotton balls out of his
There is a general timidity about this recording which is saddening.
The climax of “Veruju,” which graphically depicts Christ’s
death on the cross, sounds downright wimpy: distant, muffled timpani (not
the three sets required) back up sighing, moaning strings and extremely
non-ferocious woodwind interjections. The trombones spend half the CD on
coffee break. The woodwind solos are devoid of character. The Mass’s
“Agnece Bozij” (Agnus Dei) is terribly disjointed - and a full
minute faster than Wit or Ančerl. The foot-dragging organ solo exposes
some unstable playing, and was recorded separately from the rest of the
organ-playing on the CD because the orchestral organ on all the other tracks
is thin, raspy, and intolerable.
Are there any good points? Yes. The violins sound lovely throughout,
and they are very well-recorded. Indeed, the sound generally is very good
except for the issues with the brass.
I’ll be honest: there was no recording in 2013 for which I was
more excited than this. I’d been eager to hear it. The original, uncut
! Marek Janowski! State-of-the-art surround sound! If it had been
merely pretty good, that would have been one thing. If it had been mediocre,
I would have been sorely disappointed. But it’s not even mediocre.
It’s saddening. It’s heartbreaking. This is bad. This is not the
perverse, fun, oddball kind of bad. It’s the dull, limp, pitiful,
shambolic kind of bad. Given the missed opportunity it represents, this is
the worst Janáček CD I have ever heard.