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JANACEK: Lord, Have Mercy on Us; Diary of One Who Disappeared; Glagolitic Mass –  Czech Philharmonic Choir/ Czech Philharmonic/ Vaclav Neumann – Praga Digitals

JANACEK: Lord, Have Mercy on Us; Diary of One Who Disappeared; Glagolitic Mass – Jadwiga Wysoczanska, soprano/ Marie Mrazova, alto/ Beno Blachut, tenor/ Dalibor Jedlicka, bass/ Petr Sovadina, organ/Brass Section of the Prague Symphony Orchestra/ Jiri Pinkas (Lord)/ Miroslav Frydlewicz, tenor/ Vera Soukupova, alto/Soloists of the Pavel Kuehn Chamber Chorus/ Radoslav Kvapil, piano (Diary)/ Gabriela Benackova, soprano/ Vera Soukupova. Alto/ Frantisek Livora, tenor/ Karel Pruesa, bass/ Jan Hora, organ/ Czech Philharmonic Choir/ Czech Philharmonic/ Vaclav Neumann (Mass) – Praga Digitals PRD 250 382, 78:50 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi/PIAS] ****:

Three visceral works from Leos Janacek testify to his deep Moravian roots.

Recorded on 28 March 1964, the chant Lord, Have Mercy on Us stands as the oldest Czech song. A paraphrase of the Kyrie Eleison of the liturgy, the music moves as a responsory whose Slavonic origins date back to the Tenth/Eleventh centuries. The text proceeds as a simple plea in eight verses, though Janacek’s harmonization achieves a blazing, inner light.

Janacek conceived his cycle of songs, The Diary of One Who Vanished between 1917-1919. The cycle is set for tenor, alto, three female voices, and piano, here recorded May 1970. The poems responsory—which tell the story of a village boy who falls in love with the young gypsy girl Zefka and decides to leave his family and village with her—have been attributed to the Wallachian writer Ozef Kalda. Janacek openly confessed that the poems corresponded to his passion for Kamila Stoesslova, and that the “black gypsy girl” was she, who had inspired an emotional fire that could consume them both to ashes! What strikes us most lies in the contrast of the rather stark, bleak character of the scoring and the emotional intensity of the characters.  The keyboard part adds a distinct, Kafka-esque angularity to the atmosphere, signifying the point that the young man would disappear, having (convulsively) pursued an emotional horizon he could never reach.

Vaclav Neumann’s recording of the 1926 Glagolitic Mass dates from January 1978.  The Glagolitic alphabet served as an early Slavic alphabet, and the text derives from Old Church Slavonic, with five vocal movements corresponding to the Catholic Ordinary of the Mass, omitting Dona nobis pacem in the Agnus Dei. The texture of the work proves particularly rich and voluptuous, opening with brilliant brass fanfares and employing a highly chromatic string line. The rhythmic motion can be relentless, even in the dramatic organ solo, a kind of moto perpetuo in soaring flights of fancy.

The addition of  glockenspiel, triangle, timpani, snare drum, cymbals, tam-tam, two harps, celesta, and tuba provide an extraordinary panoply of sound, which I first heard via Robert Shaw and the Atlanta Symphony and have never forgotten. The essentially Moravian character of the work demands a staccato quality in the voices, which can be both sensuous and grueling. Milan Kundera once spoke of the piece that it seems more “an orgy than a mass” in its celebration of the life force of Moravian culture. The vibrant cross-rhythms and the primal orchestral effects still make for a stirring impact, given that various revisions of the score since Neumann’s classic performance make contemporary conductors opt for structural and textural variants, each of which has its virtues and disadvantages. This version and those of Rudolf Kempe and Charles Mackerras well suit my taste.

—Gary Lemco

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