Dating from Rattle's early career, these recordings have stood the test of time and remain prime recommendations for anyone looking to add these original and exciting works to their collection.
The Mass was, I think, Rattle's first recording with the CBSO and is given a competent and red-blooded performance that I have enjoyed often. The orchestral playing is alert, fresh and lithe and recorded with a great degree of detail. This is no workmanlike run-through and yet they already sound like they've been working with Rattle for many years. The extraordinarily versatile CBSO Chorus turn their attention to yet another language and manage to sound completely at home in it. I can't say how 'Czech-like' they sound, but their diction is clear and crisp and they sing with both haunting beauty and thrilling power.
The soloists are generally very strong although I suspect that Felicity Palmer's rather plummy-sounding soprano might not be to everyone's taste. I've grown used to it over the years although I have since come to prefer Sheila Armstrong's more elegant reading for Tennstedt live on BBC Legends [ Janácek - Glagolitic Mass; Strauss, R - Der Bürger alsEdelmann ], despite the insert and notes crediting the soprano as Ameral Gunson and Armstrong as the alto! Gunson takes the small alto role for Rattle too, joined by Malcolm King as an authoritative and dark-toned bass and the characteristically fearless John Mitchinson who trounces just about everybody else on record in the treacherously difficult tenor role.
I must also mention Jane Parker-Smith's fantastically insane account of the organ solo. You can almost imagine her in a black cape, howling with demonic laughter and eyes rolling as she hurls herself across the keyboards and pedals like a woman possessed! Gloriously, thrillingly unhinged!
The Sinfonietta was recorded a year later in 1982 with the Philharmonia, an orchestra Rattle worked with often in his early career. This is a wonderfully bright and invigorating account of this zippy little work with an especially vivid and varied pallette of brass sound evident right from the off. The rhythmic bounce and snap is as bracing as a gallop through a snowy pine forest and the orchestral playing and precision is razor-sharp. A scintillating and rewarding account.
The sound quality differs quite sharply between the two pieces. The Sinfonietta was recorded in the legendary Kingsway Hall and has a typically open and natural acoustic. The Mass was recorded in the Great Hall of Birmingham University, a church-like building with a church-like resonance and reverberation. The EMI engineers have tried to counter this with a slightly recessed recording. The remastering for this Great Recordings re-release may have addressed this but I have always had to turn up the volume a fair way on my original 1988 CD to get the right degree of impact (which is certainly attainable).
The live Tennstedt recording I mentioned earlier is possibly more thrilling but lacks a little polish orchestrally and sonically and has a bizarre Strauss coupling. I'm a huge fan of it but, with its natural partner in the Sinfonietta and performances of this quality, Rattle remains my top choice.
Not only is this performed with outstanding perfection, but the quality of the sound is also incredible, if only more CD's like this were available. Simon Rattle conducts with superb control, and The Birmingham Chorus give it their all in The Glagolitic Mass, (of which this is the best recording). This is a superb value CD that will hopefully give Janacek the recognition he deserves.