LEOS Janacek composed his greatest orchestral and choral works -- the Sinfonietta and the Glagolitic Mass -- in 1926, when he was 72 years old. Both have been aptly described as overflowing with "tempestuous vitality." Both are stunning examples of this remarkable composer's individual approach to Czech nationalism, and both are represented in handsome new recordings.
Some time ago a "music appreciation" broadcaster played a recording of the Glagolitic Mass, announced that it is sung in Czech, and in fact took pains to commend the English soloists in their handling of the Czech tongue. The point of the title, though, is that the work, which is also known as the Slavonic Mass, is not in Czech, but in what is generally known as Old Church Slavonic, a language whose nearest modern likenesses are found in the speech of the Croats and Bulgarians; the language, like Janacek's own outlook in many of his works, is "pan-Slavonic."
Janacek described himself as "no believer, till I can see for myself." He regarded churches as symbols of death, with their "graves under the flagstones, bones on the altar, all kinds of torture and death in the paintings. The rituals, the prayers, the chants -- death and death again! I won't have anything to do with it!" His faith was of a robust, pantheistic sort, his only cathedral the great Luhacovice Forest (in or near which the Glagolitic Mass was composed), and, while the work is liturgically acceptable, his purpose in writing it was, in his own words, "to express faith in the certainty (that is, the sure survival) of the nation, not on a religious basis but on moral foundations, which call upon God as witness."
The new recording of the Mass, on a Supraphon import (1122698G), was made in Janacek's own city of Brno. Frantisek Jilek conducts the Brno Philharmonic, with Gabriela Benackova-Capova, soprano, Eva Randova, contralto, Vilem Pribyl, tenor, Sergej Kopcak, bass, and Josef Vesekka's Czech Philharmonic chorus; Jan Hora plays the wild organ solo before the final orchestral Intrada.
I had hoped for some time that Quintessence might get around to reissuing the recording of the Glagolitic Mass made by the late Karel Ancerl, with the same chorus as in the new version but with the Czech Philharmonic and an even more impressive solo quartet (Beno Blachut, Vera Soukupova, et al.) That has not happened, but Quintessence has brought back Ancerl's pairing of the Sinfonietta and "Taras Bulba" (PMC-7184, cassette P4C-7184), just in time to coincide with Philips' release of its brand-new recording of the same works by the Rotterdam Philharmonic under its American conductor David Zinman (9500.874, cassette 7300.874).
The Sinfonietta is a deceptively titled work -- no lightweight charmer, but a fiercely impassioned statement for which Janacek augmented his large orchestra with nine extra trumpets (for a total of 12) and numerous other additional brass instruments which, together with timpani, function independent of the orchestra proper. This unusual setup reflects the origin of the work, which grew out of a set of fanfares Janacek composed for a Sokol Slet (national gymnastic meet). There is no other work quite like it. It happens to have more than its share of memorable tunes, but what is most striking is the almost primitive exultancy of its opening and closing sections.
Zinman and his orchestra make a fine showing in both the Sinfonietta and "Taras Bulba," and they are splendidly abetted by the Philips engineers. I only missed a certain degree of thrust in the opening movement of the Sinfonietta. In rehearsing the Ancerl performances, I missed nothing: I don't think the Sinfonietta has ever had a more powerful performance.
It was imaginative of Quintessence to bypass the more recent recording of these two works by the Czech Philharmonic under Zdenek Kosler in favor of the older Ancerl. Kosler's performances are less effective in Supraphon's quadraphonic edition than in the two-channel digital one Denon produced from the same sessions (available here for two or three years now, Denon OX-7110-ND). Even Kubelik's admirable Deutsche Grammophon version of the Sinfonietta (2530.075) comes in behind Ancerl's, though his "taras Bulba" is outstanding.