Tuesday 15 September 2020

Orchestral showcase: Simon Rattle conducts Janacek's The Cunning Little Vixen on LSO Live

Janacek The Cunning Little Vixen; Lucy Crowe, Gerald Finley, London Symphony Orchestra, Simon Rattle; LSO Live
Janacek The Cunning Little Vixen; Lucy Crowe, Gerald Finley, London Symphony Orchestra, Simon Rattle; LSO Live

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 11 September 2020 Star rating: 4 (★★★★)
This live recording of Janacek's delightful opera from Simon Rattle is very much a showcase for the London Symphony Orchestra, with a strong ensemble cast

Sir Simon Rattle has quite a long history with Janacek's 1924 opera The Cunning Little Vixen. He performed in it as a student (and a very transformative experience this was, according to his booklet note on this new recording), and it was the opera with which he made his debut at the Royal Opera House in 1990 in Bill Bryden's new production (a performance which can also be found Chandos' Opera in English series). Bryden's production, for all its charm, was not naturalistic and instead used elements of the man-made industrial landscape to create the forest. When Rattle returned to the work in 2017, it was in a semi-staging by Peter Sellars at the Berlin Philharmonie with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. It was the London version of this production [see the review on The Arts Desk], with Rattle conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in 2019, which forms the basis for this new set. Evidently, Sellars' production was rather a gritty urban vision, so perhaps Rattle likes his Vixen rather edgy.

LSO Live has now issued Simon Rattle's account of Janacek's The Cunning Little Vixen with the London Symphony Orchestra, and Lucy Crowe as the Vixen, Gerald Finley as the Forester, Hanno Müller-Brachmann as Harašta, Jan Martiník as Badger and Parson, Peter Hoare as Mosquito, Rooster and Schoolmaster, and Sophia Burgos as the Fox.

The performances in 2019 were very much events involving the whole LSO community, so that there was the orchestra, the London Symphony Chorus (over 70 non-professional singers) and 25 children from the LSO Discovery Voices some of whom provided solo voices in the work. The recording was made at two live performances, so we get all the vivid advantages of live performance in a work which relies for its effect very much on the story telling ability of the cast. 

Janacek: Cunning Little Vixen - Gerald Finley, Lucy Crowe with LSO in 2019 - (Photo Mark Allan / LSO / Barbican)
Janacek: Cunning Little Vixen - Gerald Finley, Lucy Crowe with LSO in 2019
(Photo Mark Allan / LSO / Barbican)

A perhaps surprising decision was to perform it in Czech. The use of Czech in Janacek's operas has become more common, and evidently Rattle and Sellars chose Czech because the English version fails to do justice to Janacek's rhythms. But we lose a lot in comprehensibility, and I still feel that this opera works best if you can understand the words, something is lost if you have to concentrate on a printed libretto.

In many ways, the opera is a strange patchwork of small moments which Janacek has woven into a miraculous whole. Famously, when Janacek composed he ruled his own manuscript paper and this meant that if he wanted to add an instrument he could do so, he simply ruled some more lines. You feel that this libretto was created in the same instinctive way, and melding it all together is the orchestra out of whose textures the voices emerge and disappear.

Rattle's view of the work is perhaps inflected by the grittiness of the production. With the LSO players he creates a superbly vivid and engaged account of the score, full of detail and always alive. Yet it does not have the twinkly story-tale glow that some performances do (Charles Mackerras takes a rather softer view of the work in his classic recording with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra), but then the story is not really a twinkly story-tale either. The life of the animals is straightforward, direct and sometimes difficult, death is ever present, and the humans are all rather sad creatures. [In fact, if you make the characters completely human, then the story has a very nasty undertone, something mined by Daisy Evans in her production for Silent Opera, where Vixen is a street person and the Forester's relationship with her becomes disturbingly sexually oppressive, see my review] It is this vivid edginess to the story which makes the transformation which comes at the end all the more magical.

Lucy Crowe also has history with the role of the Vixen, and can be seen in the 2013 DVD production from Glyndebourne conducted Vladimir Jurowski. Crowe is not really a soubrette style of Vixen, which means that we avoid one of the main problems with the role; Janacek's orchestration is such that by casting a young soubrette as Vixen we lose an element of clarity as the orchestra can win in the balance. Here Crowe is always to the fore, and her performance is quite serious, though fully rounded with some delightful pert moments and the impressive character needed for such scenes as the farmyard. She is paired with another soprano, Sophia Burgos, who makes a luscious fox and the two's duet comes over very well.  

Gerald Finley makes a very human Forester, despite his actions you can never get annoyed with him and his final scene is a glorious paen to nature. He is surrounded by a fine cast of humans, Paulina Malefane as his wife, Peter Hoare as the schoolmaster, Jan Martinik as the parson, Hanno Muller- Brachmann as Harasta, Jonah Halton as Pasek, and Anna Paskova as Pasek's wife. None of them terribly admirable, and all very human. 

As I have said, the nature of the performance does have some drawbacks. The child soloists are all admirable, but as recorded live some of them are a little far back in the mix and this rather draws attention to the imbalance. There were also moments when the LSO Chorus, admirable though it is, simply sounded too large and too robust for the circumstances. 

I have to confess that my first choice for a recording of The Cunning Little Vixen would be for one in English, which rather means Rattle's first recording with Lilian Watson in the title role, and I would also not want to be without Sir Charles Mackerras, which means his Vienna Philharmonic recording with Lucia Popp (in Czech). But this new recording brings a vivid modern perspective onto the score and combines a superb performance from the London Symphony Orchestra with a fine ensemble account from the soloists.

The pairing is a live recording of Janacek's Sinfonietta with Rattle conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in 2018. A taut account of the work which comes over well, though for me it is a work which simply has to be heard live.

Leos Janacek (1854-1928) - The Cunning Little Vixen (1923)
Janacek - Sinfonietta
Lucy Crowe - Vixen
Gerald Finley - Forester
Sophia Burgos - Fox, Chocholka
Peter Hoare - Schoolmaster, Cock, Mosquito
Jan Martinik - Parson, Badger
Hanno Muller-Brachmann - Harasta
Paulina Malefane - Forester's Wife, Owl, Woodpecker
Anna Lapkovskaja  - Mrs Paskova, Lapak
Jonah Halton - Pasek
Irene Hoogveld - Jay
Poppy Dawid, Inji Galliet-Jakoby, Saoirse Exelby, Maeve McAllister, Eben Watson, Olivia Solomou, Theo Smith - treble soloists
London Symphony Orchestra
London Symphony Chorus
LSO Discovery Voices
Simon Rattle (conductor)
Recorded live at the Barbican, London, 27 & 29 June 2019, 18 & 19 September 2018
LSO LIVE LSO0850 2CDs [63:09, 56:28]

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