Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
Glagolitic Mass (original version) [41:57]
Taras Bulba [22:38]
Aga Mikolaj (soprano); Iris Vermillion (contralto); Stuart Neill (tenor); Arutjun Kotchinian (bass); Iveta Apkalna (organ)
Berlin Radio Choir; Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra/Marek Janowski
rec. November 2010 and April 2012, Haus des Rundfunks, Berlin, except Glagolitic Mass organ solo, Philharmonie Berlin
PENTATONE SACD PTC 5186 388 [64:35]
Here is an early contender for 2013 Disappointment of the Year. Leoš Janáček’s music is flourishing in a worldwide revival, and great new recordings of his music seem to arrive every year. The Glagolitic Mass is one of the 20th century’s greatest works, a fierce and exultant celebration of life, and Taras Bulba is a thrilling work of symphonic storytelling. Marek Janowski is a very good conductor - I especially love his Brahms - and the Berlin Radio Symphony needs no introduction. PentaTone’s sound engineers are responsible for some of the most opulent, cutting-edge recordings of our day. This is some of my favorite music in the world; it’s very personal to me and I love these works dearly.
And yet this is a disaster.
Let’s start with the shorter work. Taras Bulba gets off 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 cheeks.
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 Mass! 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.
Talk about superlatives. This was my most-anticipated recording of 2013, but it turned out to be the worst Janáček CD I have ever heard.
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