For this second volume in their traversal of Janáček’s orchestral works, Edward Gardner and the Bergen Philharmonic have turned mainly to the more obscure pieces from the composer’s output – with two underrated pieces of his maturity and two experiments from his last years.
Long known primarily as the discarded prelude to Jenůfa, Jealousy (1895) makes an effective overture in its own right; not so much encapsulating the opera for which it was intended, as setting the scene for a drama in tersely fatalistic terms. Gardner brings a Sibelian starkness to the piece, and is hardly less impressive in the symphonic poems Janáček wrote either side of Jenůfa‘s triumphal Prague premiere.
The Fiddler’s Child (1913) draws upon an evocative poem by Svatopluk Čech in music that takes its leitmotif technique in intriguing directions, its restive atmosphere and formal obliqueness a sure pointer towards what was to come. The Ballad of Blaník (1919) is frequently regarded as a failure in its attempt to reduce Jaroslav Vrchlický’s idealistic poem down to its expressive essentials, though the structural ingenuity of Janáček’s response and resourceful deployment of one of his largest orchestras cannot be gainsaid. Both pieces stand little chance of regular hearings given the emphasis on Symphonies and Concertos in live performance, making their recorded representation the more valuable.
The latest two pieces here were never completed by Janáček, and it was left to musicologists Miloš Štědroň and Leoš Faltus to give them viable shape (in 1985 and 1988). In the case of The Danube (1925), there had been less stylistically ‘authentic’ realisations of a work whose ‘symphony’ designation might be fanciful if not for motif-links as override the disjunctive contrasts of its four succinct movements; Janáček’s quirky originality being most evident in the third – with its airy soprano vocalise (agilely taken by Susanna Andersson) as foreshadows the formal innovation of the Second String Quartet. Whether The Wandering of a Soul (1926) was intended as a one-movement Violin Concerto, its absorbing into the opera From the House of the Dead does not preclude its effectiveness, and James Ehnes probes its quixotic alternations of mood.
Which leaves Taras Bulba (1918), the rhapsody after Gogol and Janáček’s most impressive orchestral work prior to the Sinfonietta. Recordings have been numerous this past half-century, but Gardner has its measure – whether in the steadily mounting unease of ‘The Death of Andriy’, the lurching-toward crisis of ‘The Death of Ostap’, then the surging impetus of ‘The Prophesy and Death of Taras Bulba’ whose magisterial apotheosis is vividly rendered. A fine showing, too, for the Bergen Philharmonic.
As with the first volume in this series, the recorded sound takes full advantage of the clarity and spaciousness of Bergen’s Grieghallen, with John Tyrrell’s booklet note as authoritative as expected. Those who have Tomáš Netopil’s bracingly incisive accounts of the three main works, or František Jílek’s rough-edged if idiomatic readings of the two realisations may rest content, but this Chandos disc is an impressive continuation of what looks set to be an intriguing series – not least in terms of how many volumes it runs to and how inclusive it proves to be.