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Recording of the Week, Jiří Bělohlávek conducts Janáček

August marks the ninetieth anniversary of the death of Leoš Janáček, and today brings a quartet of superb recordings which Jiří Bělohlávek made towards the end of his life with the Czech Philharmonic, whom he served as chief conductor for seven years. Recorded in Prague’s Rudolfinum between 2013 and 2017 (the Sinfonietta was set down just three months before the conductor’s death), all four works receive imposing, near-cinematic treatment in interpretations which are alive to the music’s folk impulses and bristle with an electric energy that gives the impression of being barely held in check – though Bělohlávek’s unerring sense of pacing and his instinct for balance ensure that every detail registers, even in the densest and most anarchic passages.

Jiří BělohlávekThe Glagolitic Mass, premiered in 1927 and setting five movements of the Catholic Mass in Old Church Slavonic, shares many of the operatic impulses of the Verdi Requiem, and this account underlines its kinship to The Cunning Little Vixen like few others I’ve heard: there are moments in the Creed, in particular, where we seem to be closer to the pantheistic world hymned by Janáček’s Forester in the opera’s final scene (which was performed at the composer’s funeral) than to Catholic liturgy, and the impetus of the ‘Slava’ (‘Gloria’) put me very much in mind of the wedding-music from the close of the second act. Bělohlávek gives the music plenty of space from the off (the opening is notably more expansive than that of Charles Mackerras on his landmark recording from the 1980s), and this coupled with the rustic, almost folksy edge of the oboes and brass throughout intensifies the impression that this is a piece that has one foot in the great outdoors and another in the cathedral.

Most of the vocal heavy lifting falls to the tenor, and Stuart Neill (an American who’s a regular in big Italian roles at the Hungarian State Opera, and recorded this piece for Marek Janowski five years ago) handles it with incisive aplomb, even in the most exposed high-lying passages, such as the impassioned cries of ‘Svet!’ (‘Sanctus’) in the fifth movement. The men of the Prague Philharmonic Choir are scarcely less impressive, fielding real Slavic depth of tone and performing like a massed group of operatic soloists when occasion demands.

The swaggering opening fanfare of the Sinfonietta is surprisingly louche, even in comparison to Bělohlávek’s own earlier recording with this orchestra for Chandos – rather than the militaristic bravado one often hears in this music, there’s more than a hint of Louis Armstrong about the Czech Philharmonic’s trumpets here (appropriate enough, given that the jazz legend was making some of his first forays into the recording studio when the piece was composed). Taras Bulba springs to life with all the atmosphere of a lavish Hollywood epic, thanks to the liberal use of portamento from tutti strings and the solo violin in The Death of Andrei as well as plentiful dashes of rubato and forward, very present percussion in the military episodes, and the manic mazurka in The Death of Ostap provides yet another illustration of Bělohlávek’s instinctive feeling for the dance impulses which run throughout so much of Janáček’s work.

The relative rarity on the album (the piece is new to the Decca catalogue, though it features on that Chandos collection from the 1990s) is The Fiddler’s Child, a macabre but moving short ballad for orchestra with solo violin which shares something of the atmosphere of Schubert’s Erlkönig and Death and the Maiden as well as Saint-Saëns’s Danse Macabre, written four decades earlier: it’s based on a folk-tale which tells of an impoverished musician who returns from beyond the grave to lull his child to a sleep from which he never wakes, and its eerie beauty is captured quite brilliantly by Bělohlávek and his players, particularly the solo violinist who conjures up sonorities which put me in mind of the Hardanger fiddle.

As with the recording of Smetana’s Má Vlast which was released as a memorial to Bělohlávek earlier this year, this album is a wonderful reminder of the conductor’s relationship with his Czech orchestra as well as his great affinity with the music of his countrymen – I can only hope that there’s more in the pipeline…

Czech Philharmonic, Prague Philharmonic Choir, Jiří Bělohlávek

Available Formats: MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC

Czech Philharmonic, Jiří Bělohlávek

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC