Maybe these two discs are to be Sir Charles' farewell to recording Janacek. I wouldn't bet the mortgage on it, though, because he still shows amazing energy levels at 80 years of age and is to conduct Makropoulos at the ENO next month. Nevertheless, you could certainly argue that these performances provide us with a summation of a lifetime's love and scholarly work on these scores from Janacek's greatest proselytiser.
Many of these works have been recorded by Sir Charles before, notably on his ground-breaking Pye recording from the 50's. There was a certain rawness about that recording (partly because of the musicians' unfamiliarity with the music and their sense of discovery, partly because of the dry acoustic) that suited this music particularly well - better, I think, than the plushness and greater security of the later Vienna Philharmonic performances.
The Sarka and Katya excerpts here come from Mackerras' complete Supraphon recordings of the operas. The Katya interludes really exist only as a result of Sir Charles' research and this is wonderful music that we (and the opera) would now be much poorer without.
Most of the other performances are taken from live performances in Prague. They are consistently fine and carry a strong feeling of authenticity when played, as here, by a Czech orchestra. The Jealousy Overture is a great opener, much better in a concert context than in Jenufa for which it was originally written. The Vixen Suite is just gorgeous. There are none of the humans in this Suite, not even the Forester's pantheistic final aria. It is all about the animals and includes the inspiring ballet in which the Vixen dreams of her freedom. Sir Charles and his Czech players give a truly uplifting performance.
Perhaps the most intriguing piece here is the rarity, the orchestral music Janacek wrote for the play, Schluck und Jau. This is the last orchestral music that the composer ever wrote. There are echoes in it of the imperial fanfares from the Makropoulos Affair and of passages from the House of the Dead but it also shows him still questing for new sonorities, fully brought out in this definitive performance.
The two big pieces on these discs - Taras Bulba and the Sinfonietta - are both great live performances. In the former, Sir Charles really gives the graphic and illustrative instrumentation full reign - the integrated organ sounds, the strangulated clarinet, the ideally crisp timps, the solo horn way up high in its register and the full rich brass ensemble of Taras' final apotheosis. The Sinfonietta, too, is as near definitive as you'll get. The full compliment of brass for the opening and closing fanfares are there and the tiered effects the composer demands are ideally realised. I suspect a bit of textual tidying up here and there from Sir Charles the scholar. Certainly the results are as clear and crisp as you could ask, whether in chattering woodwind, crystal bright trumpet playing or perfectly intonated string playing whether at speed or at rest.
All in all, these discs represent a wonderful summary of a lifetime's dedication the Janacek. Worth every penny.