Tuesday 25 September 2018

Jiri Belohlavek & the Czech Philharmonic in Janacek

Jiri Belohlavek - Janacek: Glagolitic Mass - Decca
Janacek Glagolitic Mass, Taras Bulba, Sinfonietta, The Fiddler's Child; Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, Prague Philharmonic Choir, Hibla Gerzmava, Veronika Hajnova, Stuart Neill, Jan Martinik, Ales Barta, Jiri Belohlavek; DECCA  
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 25 September 2018 
Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
A rugged, outdoors approach to Jiri Belohlavek's recording of the original version of Janacek's Glagolitic Mass

There has been a tendency to smooth out the awkward corners of Janacek's Glagolitic Mass to make it fit easily into the Western European tradition of choral/orchestral sacred works. Admittedly, this was a process started by the composer, whose revision of the mass following the 1927 premiere removed some of the more ruggedly awkward corners.

Like Sir Charles Mackerras (who recorded the mass with the Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra for Chandos in 1993), Jiri Belohlavek opts for Janacek's original version on this new disc from Decca where Belohlavek conducts almost entirely Czech forces, with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, the Prague Philharmonic Choir and soloists, Hibla Gerzmava (soprano), Veronika Hajnova (alto), Stuart Neill (tenor, the only non-Czech), Jan Martinik (bass) and Ales Barta (organ). Recorded over a span of four years, in Prague's Rudolfinum, this double CD set also contains Janacek's Sinfonietta (dating from around the same time as the mass), the Rhapsody for orchestra Taras Bulba (written originally in 1915, revised in 1918 and premiered in 1921) and the 1917 tone poem The Fiddler's Child

Belohlavek takes a rugged, outdoors approach to the mass, depicting Janacek's belief in craggy granite which is still capable of melting in wonder. In a performance which is by turns robust and poetic, Belohlavek and his forces relish the work's contrasts and juxtapositions or texture rather than smoothing them out. Belohlavek also brings out the strong folk influence of the piece.

He is helped by singing which is robust yet accurate and fine-grained where needed. The soloists approach the music head-on, with commitment rather than straining (and failing as often happens) to make the music lovely. Belief should not be easy and this work well as the sheer directness of tenor Stuart Neill's approach makes the impossible tenor part seem entirely natural. I was impressed too with the way the chorus, which clearly knows the work backwards, handles all the tricky corners accurately and confidently rather than simply negotiating them.

Belohlavek's speeds seem steady, but he brings out the detail and keeps an eye on the greater structure. This really is a craggy, outdoors performance and one which provides a strong contrast and worthy companion to Mackerras' recording.

Belohlavek takes a similar approach to Janacek's Sinfonietta, where speeds are not overdone yet it is full of detail and incident, vivid textures and powerful contrasts, with some thrilling moments in the great fanfares, the brilliant whipped up horns and much more besides. This is not a performance for anyone who wants a smooth, technically virtuoso account of the work, instead, the performers relish the sheer physicality of Janacek's writing.

Taras Bulba provides some rich orchestral playing and gloriously warm textures. Belohlavek brings out the narrative element, though I could have wished that the organ was stronger in the mix. The set is completed with a fine account of Janacek's tone poem, The Fiddler's Child a delightful work which ought to be on concert programmes more.

This is a superb addition to Jiri Belohlavek's discography, and certainly must rank as a must-have disc, even if you have Sir Charles Mackerras' account of the original version of Janacek's Glagolitic Mass.
Leos Janacek (1854-1928) - Glagolitic Mass
Leos Janacek - Sinfonietta
Leos Janacek - Taras Bulba
Leos Janacek-  The Fiddler's Child
Hibla Gerzmava (soprano)
Veronika Hajnova (alto)
Stuart Neill (tenor)
Jan Martinik (bass)
Ales Barta (organ)
Prague Philharmonic Choir (Lukas Vasilek, chorus master)
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra
Jiri Belohlavek (conductor)
Recorded in the Rudolfinum, Prague, 3 & 4 October 2013, 22-24 October 2014, 1 & 2 October 2015, 22-24 February 2017.
DECCA 483 4080 2CDS [64.27, 35.51]

Available from Amazon

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