Janáček Choral and Orchestral Music

0 of 5 stars

The Eternal Gospel
The Ballad of Blaník
The Fiddler’s Child
The Excursions of Mr Brouček [Suite for orchestra compiled by Jaroslav Smolka and Jiří Zahrádka]

Gweneth-Ann Jeffers (soprano)
Adrian Thompson (tenor)

Edinburgh Festival Chorus

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Ilan Volkov

Recorded in Caird Hall, Dundee – 4 & 5 June 2004 (Fiddler’s Child & Brouček) and 7 & 8 January 2005

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: October 2005
Duration: 60 minutes

Hyperion’s release of rarities by Leoš Janáček (1854-1928) conducted by the very talented Ilan Volkov is a welcome addition to the catalogue, an issue that should bring these unfamiliar pieces to a wider audience.

First on the disc is “The Eternal Gospel” described as a ‘Legend for soprano, tenor, chorus and orchestra’. Dating from 1913 it is a big-scale if short work (19 minutes here) that heralds much of the “Glagolitic Mass” that was to follow over a decade later. In general the music is very much of the style of the almost contemporaneous opera “Jenůfa”. From the hushed string opening with its impassioned solo violin, the clean and immediate recording allows the intricacies of the orchestration to register. Adrian Thompson and Gweneth-Ann Jeffers are suitably operatic and idiomatic; Thompson in particular has a quality of voice one associates with Czech tenors in that he has an open-throated vocal production and excellent diction. Thompson’s piano singing is particularly lovely, but when pressed in the upper reaches of the part (of mystic Joachim of Fiore) his vibrato can be a bit wearisome. Jeffers has a big fruity voice, not always in perfect control, but is a robust and engaging Angel. The choral contributions are lusty, strong and thrilling. Best of all are the brass and percussive flourishes, which are intriguing in their similarity to the later Mass.

The following two orchestral pieces are also delightful. The Ballad of Blaník with its swirling string themes punctuated by spiky woodwind decorations and later by higher strings is launched most engagingly. The dialogue sections of the harp and strings that follow later are beautifully realised and caught in the spacious recording. All the sections of the orchestra are on sparkling form in this hugely enjoyable short piece.

The Fiddler’s Child is subtitled ‘Ballad for solo violin and orchestra’. Here the solo part is played by Elizabeth Layton who endows her lines with the necessary mix of fluid floating tones and, when needed, more sharply accented attack. The different moods of the piece are nicely contrasted and build into a cogent whole, even if the piece perhaps slightly outstays its welcome.

Janáček is, of course, well known for his operatic output. “The Excursions of Mr Brouček” is one of the stage-works that only rarely gets an outing; it needs a strong and characterful tenor in the title role and bags of imagination in the sets, and from the director, to fully realise the fantasy elements of the plot. In the course of the opera Mr Brouček not only visits the moon but also travels back to critical moments in 15th-century Bohemian history.

The music is as inventive and engaging as that of the other operas – as this orchestral suite demonstrates. Volkov and the BBCSSO deliver a performance of panache and excitement. The opening section is the quiet measured ‘prelude to the moon episodes’, and what then follows as the second section is the quirky ‘moon dance’ – a slightly offbeat waltz. There is some lovely fluid trumpet playing as well as sparkling percussion and woodwind effects. The final sections of the Suite abound in Janáčekian dazzle and colour and luscious warm harmonies. This release is a must for the Janáček enthusiast and anyone interested in him.

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