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Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
Glagolitic Mass (original version based on 1927 premiere, reconstructed by Jiří Zahrádka) [41:27]
Sinfonietta [22.54]
Taras Bulba [22.50]
The Fiddler’s Child [13.01]
Hibla Gerzmava (soprano), Stuart Neill (tenor), Veronika Hajnová (mezzo-soprano), Jan Martiník (bass),
Prague Philharmonic Choir
Czech Philharmonic/Jiří Bělohlávek
Aleš Bárta (organ)
rec. 2013-17, Rudolfinum, Prague, Czech Republic
Sung texts are provided with English translations
DECCA 4834080 [64.27 + 35.51]

This Decca release of Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass continues the Decca series of recordings conducted by the late Jiří Bělohlávek who died in May 2017. The recording could be said to mark two events. It commemorates both the ninetieth anniversary of Janáček’s death in 1928 and the centenary of Czech independence. Attending a performance of Glagolitic Mass always feels like a special event. In September 2013 I was delighted to report from Musikfest Berlin when Simon Rattle conducted Glagolitic Mass with Tschechische Philharmonische Chor Brno and Berliner Philharmoniker at Philharmonie, Berlin.

Janáček’s major contribution to Christian sacred music is his Glagolitic Mass for soloists, chorus, orchestra and organ. For this setting of the Roman Catholic Mass, Janáček reached back to Old Church Slavonic script (Glagolitic), the earliest written Slavic language that was used in medieval times. Here it could be said that Janáček was highlighting the communion between Slavic Nations and displaying his patriotic belief in National independence. With five sung movements the body of the mass is preceded by a fanfare ‘Introduction’ and ends with an organ solo (‘Postludium’) followed by a concluding ‘Intrada – Exodus’. A late work, Janáček completed the score in 1926 and it was premiered by the Brno Arts Society under Jaroslav Kvapil in 1927 at Brno. Dissatisfied, the composer revised the score the following year for a performance in Prague. On this recording Bělohlávek is conducting Czech musicologist Jiři Zahrádka’s reconstructed version of the ‘original’ score of the Glagolitic Mass given in 1927 at the world premiere performance in Brno.

In ‘Úvod’ (Introduction) the glowing brass fanfares that open the work strongly remind me of the stirringly lyrical opening of his Sinfonietta. The assured entrance of the chorus, intoning the words “Lord have mercy on us” in the ‘Gospodi pomiluj’ (‘Kyrie’) feels ideal. Abkhazian-Russian soprano Hibla Gerzmava with the words “Christ have mercy on us” demonstrates clear enunciation and appropriate reverence, although her bright tone is rather piercing. Right from his first entry in ‘Slava’ (Gloria) with the words “Thou, who is seated at the right hand of the father” I was struck by the wholehearted performance of American tenor Stuart NeilL, singing with such clarity and piety. Rather like Gerzmava, Neill’s tone is too bright. I have listened to both singers on other recordings and neither sound uncomfortably over-bright there, which I am putting down mainly to the recording here. In the especially dark and threatening ‘Virago’ (Credo) Czech bass Jan Martiník opening with the words “and the life of the world to come” is in rich, steadfast voice. There is some notably glorious music in this movement, especially the stunning episode for low strings. A master stroke by Janáček in the ‘Virago’ is the short solo played by Czech organist Aleš Bárta. Opening with a sweet violin solo from concertmaster Jiří Vodička the wonderful, yet highly challenging ‘Svet’ (Sanctus) with its layers of repeated motifs for the instrumental groups is strikingly played. In the ‘Svet’ the reliable mezzo-soprano Veronika Hajnová doesn’t have too much text to sing. Conspicuously attractive and rich in tone Hajnová intones “blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”. Her contribution may be modest, but it is a telling one. The final choral movement ‘Agneče Božij’ (Agnus Dei) feels sinister and heavy full of dark foreboding. Here the Prague Philharmonic Choir and bass Martiník singing “Lamb of God who takest away the sins of the world” give a splendid example of reverential expression at its most sincere. Making a real impact in the penultimate movement ‘Varhany sólo’ (Postludium), a dazzling showpiece for solo organ, Bárta produces sparkling and confident playing. Dominated by timpani and glowing brass in the final movement ‘Intrada’ (Exodus) conductor Jiří Bělohlávek, who has held proceedings together tightly, brings the score to a jubilant close. Despite Bělohlávek’s proficiency in the Glagolitic Mass my benchmark remains the captivating and intense 1974 performance from Rafael Kubelik conducting Chor und Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks recorded at Herkulessaal, Munich on Deutsche Grammophon.

Also, on the first CD is Sinfonietta a much-admired work which Janáček originally titled Military Sinfonietta, written for the Sokol Gymnastic Festival for the Czech armed forces. It isn’t difficult to imagine the composer’s sense of patriotism in the years following the declaration of Czech independence in 1918. This work in five movements, scored for large orchestra including twenty-five brass players, was premiered in Prague in 1926 under Václav Talich. Clearly relishing the score, Bělohlávek and his Czech forces demonstrate impressive form, giving a gripping interpretation overflowing with colour, which doesn’t try to even out the craggy textures. The brass playing is of a high quality although in the renowned opening fanfare I wanted slightly more expressive impact. Generally, in Janáček orchestral recordings my reliable guide is Rafael Kubelik and here my primary recommendation for the Sinfonietta is Kubelik conducting Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, in a live account from 1981 at Herkulessaal, Munich, on Orfeo.

The second CD commences with Taras Bulba, an impressive rhapsody for orchestra inspired by three episodes from Nikolai Gogol’s novella. The work mirrors Janáček’s passion and empathy for the people of the Russian Nation and was composed during the period 1915-18 and premiered at the National Theatre, Brno in 1921. Bělohlávek draws a wide range of orchestral colour, together with a near-overwhelming passion to its rousing conclusion. Bělohlávek’s recording of Taras Bulba is top drawer and can stand alongside Rafael Kubelik’s 1970 account with Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks made at Herkulessaal, Munich on Deutsche Grammophon. Written for the Czech Philharmonic The Fiddler’s Child is thought to have been commenced in 1912 although it wasn’t until 1917 that it received its premiere in Prague. It’s a narrative tone poem based on Svatopluk Čech’s rather gruesome tale. In this work, imbued with melancholy, Bělohlávek produces just the right level of atmosphere from his players. The playing of the prominent solo violin part by Jiří Vodička is distinguished. With a profound knowledge of the essence of these scores, Bělohlávek demonstrates that he is an accomplished Janáček interpreter while the Czech Philharmonic produce highly passionate playing with an admirable richness of tone. The major work, the Glagolitic Mass, is given a most splendid performance, although not one I consider a great one.

All works were recorded at separate concerts at the Rudolfinum, Prague; the engineers have produced satisfying sound quality which is especially well balanced. My only caveat is the over-brightness of the soprano and tenor in the Mass. In the accompanying booklet there is an uncredited essay which is easy to read and provides the essential information. Pleasingly, sung texts are provided with English translations in the booklet. At just thirty-six minutes the second CD is short measure and could have accommodated Janáček’s oratorio The Eternal Gospel for soprano, tenor, mixed chorus and orchestra an addition that would have made this set even more desirable.

Michael Cookson

Previous review: Leslie Wright


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