JANACEK: Glagolitic Mass; Sinfonietta; Taras Bulba; The Fiddler’s Child – Hibla Gerzmava, soprano/ Veronica Hajnova, alto/ Stuart Neill, tenor/ Jan Martinik, bass/ Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/ Prague Philharmonic Choir/Jiri Belohlavek – Decca 483 4080 (2 CDs) TT: 100:18 (8/31/18) [Distr. by Universal] *****:

Among the last recordings of the late Jiri Belohlavek (1946-2017), the works of Leos Janacek (1854-1928) figure prominently, constituting as they do a Moravian, nationalist tradition that still manages to convey a universality by dint of Janacek’s striking harmonic imagination and capacity for large symphonic canvases. Between the talents of Belohlavek’s Czech predecessors, Vaclav Talich and Karel Ancerl, the music of Janacek had passionate representation, which here finds a potent complement in these recordings, 2013-2017.  We should not forget, moreover, the outstanding performances of Janacek’s works by Rafael Kubelik and Rudolf Kempe, the latter of whom

Portrait of Leos Janacek

Leos Janacek, 1926

The 1924 Taras Bulba, Rhapsody for Orchestra after Gogol (rec. 22-24 October 2014) owes its inspiration to Janacek’s devout passion for Russian literature, an enchantment that led him to consider mounting an opera after Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.   Gogol conceived his tale of the Cossack warrior in 1835, depicting an adventurer and lover of independence who likewise has an insatiable taste for war. Taras and sons Ostap and Andrei consciously campaign to slaughter any perceived enemies of Christendom. In three movements, the music offers “The Death of Andrei,” “The Death of Ostap,” and “The Death and Prophecy of Taras Bulba.”  Andrei dies by his father’s hand, having gone over to the Polish side for love of a woman. Ostap, captured by the Poles, dies a violent death by torture, worthy of Mel Gibson’s William Wallace. Taras Bulba, too, suffers capture in Poland after he and his Cossacks pillage, loot, and burn. Even as the flames surround him to consume his body, Taras predicts a Russian czar will come who will submit to no foreign power. The music literally combines ceaseless energies and slashing rhythms, bells, organ, in short, jarring phrases and piercing colors, such as the E-flat clarinet that declares Ostap’s death agony.

The popular 1926 Sinfonietta (rec. 22-24 February 2017) began as brass and percussion fanfares for a gymnastics festival of the Czech Armed Forces. The city of Brno no less receives homage here. Of particular note are the trombone parts, the harp, the militant tympani, the wild Prestissimo section, and the stunning, pedal-point climaxes that ever blaze in Janacek with modal, apocalyptic fury. The Andante – Allegretto shares many an effect with Bartok of the Concerto for Orchestra.

For the Glagolitic Mass of 1926 (rec. 3-4 October 2013 of the “September 1927” version), Janacek – an unabashed patriot – rejected the traditional Latin for a more “nationalist” expression of Old Church Slavonic of the Ninth Century. Typical of Janacek, the Mass conveys an uneasy piety, at times pungently operatic, at times idyllically pastoral. The pantheistic elements may remind some of the unorthodoxy of the Cathedral of the Sacred Family by Gaudi. The last movements, Postludium and Intrada – Exodus projects a virtuoso organ solo voluntary performed by Ales Barta, followed by a wild Intrada. Of the many individual movements, the Gloria for soprano, tenor, chorus and organ delivers a vision as anguished as it is beautiful.

Portrait Jiří_Bělohlávek by Jindřich_Nosek

Jiří Bělohlávek, by Jindřich Nosek

If Antonin Dvorak could be accused of a macabre sensibility in his series of Erben-inspired late symphonic poems, so, too, Janacek found an eerie tale by Svatopluk Cech for the 1912 commission from the Czech Philharmonic for an orchestra piece. The Fiddler’s Child (rec. 1-2 October 1915) might parallel Goethe’s Erl-Koenig, insofar as a dead fiddler appears in spirit to his sleeping child playing his instrument; perhaps intending to draw the child away from the world’s ills, the fiddler manages to destroy the child’s life.  The old lady caretaker of the young child proceeds to rock the child’s lifeless body. Janacek adjusts the original tale to conform to a political allegory, with the fiddler alive at first, and the old woman has been replaced by an authoritarian mayor, whose four notes enter on the cellos and double-basses as a kind of “fate” motif. The “wonderful dreams” and possibilities for the child’s future suffer oppression from the likes of the mayor, a clear symbol of tyranny. In the course of the narrative, the low winds enjoy a remarkable series of colors, and the melodic tapestry of the piece becomes exotic and intricate.  The piece premiered in 1917.

Recording Producer Jifi Gemrat and his team of engineers deserve high praise for breadth and immediacy of the performances, more than warm tribute to the devoted master Belohlavek, whose passing denies us a major musical talent.

—Gary Lemco