THE 50TH ANNIVERSARY of Leos Janacek's death fell on August 12, and among the various observances thereof some remarkably silly things were said and written about the composer and his music. Some weeks ago, for example, a prominent exponent of the gasbag school of music appreciation announced that the Glagolitic Mass is sung in Czech, and then proceeded to commend the English singers in the recording he had played for their successful negotiation of the Czech text. The point of the work's title is that the Mass is sung in Old Church Slavonic.
A bit more recently the writer of a Janacek anniversary piece referred to "the lovely Sinfonietta." The Sinfonietta, about as "lovely" as The Rite of Spring, could only be so described by someone who had never heard the music. I would like to have heard Janacek's own comment on such a judgment; he was not reluctant to express himself in such matters. (Both the Sinfonietta and the aforementioned Mass were produced in 1926, when Janacek was 72. To a critic foolish enough to suggest that the agnostic composer had become pious in his old age, Janacek fired off a post card on which he wrote: "No old man! And no believer, either, till I see for myself!")
Even more, though, I would like to hear Janacek's own reaction to the newest recording of the Sinfonietta, taped in April of last year and just issued in Nippon Columbia's Denon digital series (OX-7110-ND). The orchestra is the Czech Philharmonic, the conductor is Zdenek Kosler, and the companion piece is the slightly earlier Taras Bulba.While one hesitates to put words in other people's mouths, I can only imagine that the composer would have pronounced it the Czech equivalent of "a knockout."
The Sinfonietta, with nine extra trumpets, other supplementary brass, and occasional odd balances between winds, brass and timpani, is not the easiest work to record well, but the realism and cleanliness of this recording are sensational. No powerhouse approach here (the music itself takes care of that), but a virtually distortion-free image of a real orchestra -- and exceptionally quiet surfaces.
The Denon PCM ("pulse code modulation") technique, as noted in an earlier column, is not being exploited for blockbuster demo discs, but is used in pursuing the most admirable musical objectives. This is indicated significantly by the high preponderance of chamber music in the Denon catalogue (also for the most part performed by distinguished Czechoslovak musicians), but the orchestra has not been entirely neglected. The Beethoven Ninth played by the Czech Philharmonic under Vaclav Neumann and the Mussorgsky/Ravel Pictures at an Exhibition with Louis Fremaux conducting the Tokyo Metropolitan. Symphony Orchestra 1 have cited previously as exemplary achievements; since those recordings were made, though, Denon has improved its already formidable equipment, and the Janacek coupling is still more stunning.
Not that it is entirely the engineers' show, by any means. Kosler has left strong impressions wherever he has appeared (his Tchalkovsky Fourth, available on Connoisseur Society disc CSQ-2147 and Advent cassette E1020, is definitely one of the superior versions of that much-recorded work), and his feeling for the Janacek idiom is irresistibly communicated. Taras Bulba, really less likely to sweep an audience to its feet than the Sinfonietta, comes off with exceptional conviction and persuasiveness.
Kubelik's coupling of these two works on Deutsche Grammophon 2530.075 is quite distinguished; the older one by the Czech Philharmonic under Karel Ancerl (last circulated here on Turnabout TV-S 34267) was grander still; but neither of these great conductors surpassed Kosler's achievement, and there has never been a recording of either work so glorious in its purely sonic aspect.