Edward Gardner’s survey of Janáček’s orchestral works arrives at a third instalment which is largely choral in content. That said, there is no harm in including two of the composer’s lesser known pieces, along with his largest choral work that is also one of his greatest masterpieces.
The only purely orchestral work here is the Adagio (circa 1890) that Janáček wrote ostensibly as an in memoriam to his son, and at a time when he seemed destined to find recognition as a collector and editor of folk music rather than a composer. Its sombreness tempered by more fervent emotions held in check, it rather suggests Janáček might comfortably have adopted a late-Romantic idiom and become an epigone of his Czech forebears; which is not to deny its appealing sincerity, especially when given with due eloquence by the Bergen Philharmonic.
Of the two shorter choral pieces, Zdrávas Maria (1904) was written for a charity concert as organised by an acquaintance from the nobility, its setting notable less for the poised choral writing than for the ethereal accompaniment of violin and organ – along with a soprano line whose plangent expressiveness lifts the music onto a heightened plane. As for Otče náš (1901), this was composed not with a liturgical function but to accompany tableaux vivants to paintings by Jósef Męcina-Krzesz that have long since disappeared (although two are reproduced in the booklet). Unpromising as this might sound, Janáček made full use of the opportunity to try out some of the more distinctive aspects in phrasing and harmony that found fruition in subsequent works – with harp and organ limpid additions to an often fervent choral texture.
From these pieces to the Glagolitic Mass (1927) is considerably further in musical scope than its two decades might suggest. Nowadays this is hardly a rarity live or in terms of recording, and the present account enters a competitive field among which it ranks high if not quite at the top. Using the 1928 revision (newly re-edited by Jiří Zahrádka), Gardner sets a relatively swift tempo for the ‘Introduction’ that is continued through a yearning ‘Kyrie’ then into a ‘Gloria’ that begins in airy radiance before building to a conclusion which is energetic rather than fervent. A degree of understatement is also evident in the ‘Credo’, its ominous opening pages and speculative instrumental interlude more convincingly rendered than the ensuing choral implorations or an apotheosis of overt emotional detachment. Commencing in beatific repose, the ‘Sanctus’ continues at a brisk though not unduly hectic tempo as heads to a close of almost Stravinskian incisiveness, but the equivocation of the ‘Agnus Dei’ requires greater inwardness. No such quibbles, though, about the surging ‘Organ solo’ or charging ‘Intrada’.
Gardner’s approach is abetted by a well-matched vocal quartet – Stuart Skelton tackling the high-lying tenor part with aplomb – and an impressively disciplined response from the choirs, while Thomas Trotter secures a dynamic response from the Rieger organ of Bergen Cathedral – seamlessly aligned with the Grieghallen acoustic. The SACD sound is otherwise on a par with earlier issues from this source, with John Tyrrell’s booklet notes informative while not a little provocative. This is a welcome addition to a worthwhile series. The booklet includes texts and translations.