Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
Sinfonietta, JW VI/18 (1926) [26:09]
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95 From the New World (1893) [44:28]
Anima Eterna Brugge/Jos Van Immerseel
rec. Concertgebouw Brugge, Bruges, Belgium, March 2015
ALPHA 206 [70:49]
Jos Van Immerseel founded the Anima Eterna Brugge as a period-instrument chamber orchestra in 1987 to perform music of the Viennese Classical and French Baroque repertoires. Initially the orchestra had only 17 musicians. According to the listing in the booklet for this CD, they now have over sixty musicians not counting all the extras for the Janáček Sinfonietta fanfare. This was bound to happen, as the orchestra has continued to move into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. However, based on the evidence in these recordings, a strength of sixty musicians seems inadequate to do justice to either the Dvořák or the Janáček. It seems especially detrimental to the Dvořák “New World” Symphony, where a larger body of strings is necessary for an acceptable balance.
The orchestra technically may be up to the task of performing the Sinfonietta, but here they sound as if they are reading the score rather than inhabiting it. From the fanfare onwards, everything in the first two movements is too inflexible, not to say metronomic, and leaves a rather dull impression. The trumpets sound raucous at the beginning with less than perfect tuning, and as a whole the orchestra appears uncomfortable with the idiom. The strings in the third movement employ a bit of period portamento, but are somewhat undernourished. When the brass enter they are impressive, if deliberate, and later just sound tame. The fourth movement is again dull and seemingly not fully digested. Tuning in the high winds at the beginning of the finale is suspect and they overbalance the strings. The orchestra finally rises to the occasion with an impressive culmination. By then, it’s too late. On the other hand, it was fun just to see what instruments of the period sounded like and I am glad I heard this performance.
Anima Eterna is obviously much more comfortable with the Dvořák. My main criticism here, though, is the strings’ lack of sufficient body. At times they are so overbalanced by the rest of the orchestra that subsidiary lines take precedence over the main themes. While the strings in the beginning are on the scrawny side, the timpani come in like gangbusters and the brass are fine. The trumpets are better than they were in the Janáček and the woodwinds have a nice, distinctive sound. The English horn solo in the second movement is well played, if not as full-toned as its modern counterparts. The lower brass is impressive, though their tuning at the beginning of this movement leaves something to be desired. Likewise, wind chording is not always together and attacks occasionally seem approximate. The strings appropriately apply more portamento in this work than they did in the Sinfonietta, which adds to the period feeling of the interpretation.
The third movement scherzo is taken at a good tempo, not so fast as to blur, but with excitement and clarity. The flute and clarinet are excellent, even though they cover the strings when the latter should be heard above them. Is this imbalance the result of the engineering, or does the blame lie with the conductor? I would suspect it is more due to the performance than the recording. The trio of this movement is kept in tempo with very good wind playing and clearly heard timpani. The horn solos are also quite good and betray their origin at times. Are they valveless horns, or the later Viennese variety? I can’t tell from the photos in the CD booklet and the notes don’t say either, although they go into more detail about the origin of the extra trumpets in the Sinfonietta fanfare.
The finale begins with sufficient power, even if the brass takes on a raucous tone. The strings are noticeably too thin and the overall lack of richness is telling. Again subordinate parts in the winds take precedence over primary ones, whether in the strings or winds. At other times the subordinate roles are brought out to telling effect. For example, when the bassoons continue with the “Three Blind Mice” theme beginning at 3:24, they are heard more clearly than I can ever remember. When the strings enter softly before the coda, they are fine and their use of portamento is effective. Overall, though, this movement seems least convincing to me and is just too hard-hitting. The last note sounds tacked on as it fades away. As with the Sinfonietta I’m glad to have heard it, but I am not planning to return to it anytime soon.
What’s most worthwhile in this release for me is the production: the booklet notes and photos and, particularly the cover art of the outer cardboard case. That has a colourful illustration of Dvořák and Janáček with a red fox—I assume a reference to The Cunning Little Vixen? The booklet itself has a chronology of Anima Eterna’s milestones, a brief discussion of their research into the works on the disc, and many colour photos.
This CD, then, is recommended for the curious. For others I would stick with previous favourites. For the Janáček Sinfonietta, I still prefer Mackerras with the Vienna Philharmonic on Decca or Ančerl with the Czech Philharmonic on Supraphon. There are so many excellent accounts available of the Dvořák that I would have a hard time singling out one or two. I remain fond of Harnoncourt’s Concertgebouw recording (Warner) and Andris Nelsons’ more recent discs with the Bavarian Radio Symphony (BR Klassik or C major DVD).