JANACEK: Orchestral Suites Vol. 1 – Jenufa and The Excursions of Mr. Broucek –Vesa-Matti Leppanen, violin /New Zealand Sym. Orch./Peter Breier – Naxos 8.570555 – 70:20 ****:
This is the first in a series of orchestral suites from the operas of Leos Janacek (1854-1928), arranged by Peter Breiner, conductor, composer and an in-house arranger for Naxos.
Janacek was 50 years old when his first operatic masterpiece, Jenufa, was performed in 1904. He had written two operas before that, but had not been able to convince anyone to perform them. The Suite from Jenufa has six sections that roughly follow the plot of the opera. It’s the tragic tale of the village girl, Jenufa, who is pregnant by her cousin, Steva, who takes no responsibility for the child. Half-brother Laca loves Jenufa, but she loves Steva. Stepmother Kostelnicka tells Laca that the baby has died while sleeping and then drowns the baby in a stream. Laca agrees to marry Jenufa, but on the wedding day the baby’s body is discovered and Kostelnicka confesses. Despite the catastrophic nature of the opera’s story, most of the music in the suite, taken from all three acts is melodious, rhythmically incisive (imitating the Czech language) and appropriately dramatic. Especially memorable is the use of the xylophone to imitate the sound of the mill in Night is Already Falling and the touching and triumphant finale (They’ve all left – Now you leave too!), when Laca and Jenufa face their future together.
The Excursion of Mr. Broucek (1920) is a whacky, fantastical and satirical story about the drunk Broucek, who is transported to the moon where he finds it inhabited by the artistic and intellectual avante-garde. Janacek’s musical description captures the tipsy (woodwinds) Broucek, and his wild visit to the moon. In the third movement, our hero encounters a series of delightful dances in the Lunar Palace of Arts. Upon returning to earth, Broucek finds himself in the middle of a 15th century war. The finale is filled with victorious nationalistic music, as Broucek whimsically imagines himself a hero.
I’ve never heard these operas, so I can’t attest to the authenticity of Mr. Breiner’s arrangements, but both these suites are pregnant with glorious melodies, theatrical flourishes and brilliant orchestrations. The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra plays well and the recording is excellent. A delightful disc, especially if you’ve never encountered Janacek’s music.
The unifying purpose of Bach, Beethoven, Mendelssohn…