on 25 July 2013
This is a collection of pretty much all of Janacek's mature purely orchestral works, the two main items being Sinfonietta and Taras Bulba. Sinfonietta is a summation of Janacek's art in instrumental terms and the product of his remarkable indian summer as a composer. This music is at the same time remarkably modern for a composer born in the 1850's, yet timeless at heart. Both exhilerating and tender, nothing quite like it had been written before or since.
There have been numerous distinguished recordings of both Sinfonietta and Taras Bulba, conducted by the likes of Ancerl, Kubelik, Mackerras, and so on, so this new recording is up against tough competition. To my mind, it's the best of a very fine bunch; not only are the conductor's interpretations of all four scores absolutely spot on, but the orchestral playing is of the very highest quality, and (this is the clincher, particularly in Sinfonietta) the recording is crystal-clear yet beautifully atmospheric - one hears all sorts of inner detail only hinted at in other recordings, but there's no sense of the sound being overly clinical. The recording producer and engineer are both to be heartily congratulated on such an achievement.
With well-written and interesting booklet notes, this is altogether a demonstration-quality issue in all respects and, for this reviewer at least, it ticks all the boxes and is most unlikely to be bettered - a collection of performances which are likely to become the benchmarks for these works.
This disc contains some of the most original music of the twentieth century. It is not atonal, it is not mathematically complex, elliptical, or difficult to 'get'. But its sound world is unique and unmistakably by the Moravian master. We tend to think of Janácek as a composer of operas, but he wrote some marvelous music for orchestra alone. Perhaps foremost among those works is his magnificent 'Sinfonietta'. The benchmark recordings of the work are those conducted by Vaclav Talich, who indeed premièred the work in 1926, and by Charles Mackerras, whose affinity for Janácek's music is well-known. But this recording by Jonathan Nott and his Bamberg Orchestra does not need to hang its head. It has the right amount of grittiness, a hallmark of Janácek's music, and forward thrust. Just listen to the opening fanfares. Particularly in SACD, the sound will rock your world without being vulgar or unduly brash. It is, as was Janácek's intent, disciplined, orderly, and menacing. Nott conveys the work's sense of danger with just the right amount of tension. It does not annoy, as some versions do, but creates the frisson that the music is designed to elicit. It perhaps helps to remember that Janácek originally called the work 'Military Sinfonietta'. The airy relief of the third movement allows one a moment to breathe before being thrust back into the militarism of the fourth movement and the hesitance, anticipation and final fanfares of the finale. This is a performance that can count itself among the best on record.
'Taras Bulba', derived from the Gogol short story about a Ukrainian Cossack and his two sons who join the fight for independence from Poland, was Janácek's first major orchestral work and dates from 1918. The first section depicts one son, André's, love for a Polish girl that causes him to become a traitor and leads to his death. The second section, The Death of Ostap (the other son), is an example of Janácek's obsessive use of marcato violin ostinatos, in this case a six-note theme used as the main feature of a grim mazurka. The finale describes Taras Bulba's moral victory and his death. This performance by Nott and the Bambergers feels a little flat to me when compared to Kubelik's classic (but aging) recording or Mackerras's more recent recording with the Czech Philharmonic.
The final piece here is a 16-minute suite taken from Janácek's opera, 'The Cunning Little Vixen'. This is not the more familiar suite devised by Talich, but one made by Frantisek Jílek. Music is taken from all three acts of the opera, but no attempt is made to outline its plot. Rather it focuses on the opera's nature-music as well as some of the love music. It reminds one how much superb orchestral music is contained in Janácek's operas.
I would have given this CD five stars except for the slight disappointment in the performance of 'Taras Bulba'. But there is an outstanding 'Sinfonietta' and a more than satisfying Jílek-arranged 'Vixen' suite, valuable also for its being different from the more easily available Talich suite.