Recording of the Week,
Simon Rattle conducts Janáček's Sinfonietta and The Cunning Little Vixen
Sometimes when listening to a new recording for the first time, you can tell more or less straight away that what you are about to hear is going to be pretty special. With Simon Rattle's new LSO Live recording of Janáček's charming sylvan opera, The Cunning Little Vixen, I think it took about ten seconds! It's a work that is very dear to Rattle's heart (indeed, he says it is the piece that made him want to become an opera conductor when he first heard it as a student at the Royal Academy of Music), and his fondness and affection for every bar of this score is eminently audible from the instant that this performance begins.
The opening prelude, a brilliant representation of a forest teeming with life, is extraordinary in Rattle's hands. The opening violin motif employs a magical touch of orchestration on Janáček's part, whereby half of the players perform col legno (i.e. using the wood of the bow rather than the hair). The LSO strings sound electrifyingly insectile, not least when the cellos and basses are similarly required to engage in the col legno effect a few moments later. If I had to describe this performance with a single adjective it would surely be "alive": the entire score is bursting with richness and vibrancy.
With its several pantomimes and interludes, there can't be many other operas that have so many extended passages for the orchestra alone, and it's an ideal opportunity to showcase the stylistic prowess that the LSO bring to this recording. There are countless places where their exquisitely colourful playing shines through, such as the almost Scriabin-like ecstasy of the shimmering strings and radiant trumpet in the Act One Dawn interlude, or the nimble flute and violin solos representing the Blue Dragonfly as it darts around, searching in vain for the Young Vixen, at the end of Act One, Scene One.
If I seem to be focussing on the orchestra quite a lot, that is not to denigrate the quality of the vocal contributions, which likewise are wonderful. In the title role, Lucy Crowe perfectly captures the quixotic, scheming moods of "Sharp-Ears" (as her character is more accurately translated from the original Czech), particularly in Act One when she slyly attempts to instigate a revolt amongst a brood of hens as a distraction so that she can escape from the clutches of the Forester. Moreover, the love duet at the end of Act Two between the Vixen and the Fox reaches near-Wagnerian levels of passion, with both Crowe and Sophia Burgos as the Fox sounding absolutely ravishing.
Many of the supporting roles are equally impressive, notably Peter Hoare as the Schoolmaster, who in Act Two drunkenly tries to find his way home in the dark and mistakes the sight of the Vixen hiding behind a sunflower for his (unrequited) love, Terynka. For me, though, the standout is Gerald Finley as the aforementioned Forester. Especially touching is his rhapsodic paean to nature in the final scene of the opera, as he reminisces about gathering mushrooms in times past with his wife, and reflects on the beauty of the forest, where newly-born creatures stir and wood-nymphs run free amongst the flowers. Finley is magnificent here, fervently euphoric and yet appropriately wistful as he spots another Young Vixen and ruminates on the circle of life.
Speaking of coming full circle, I must end by returning to the sheer splendour of the orchestral playing on this recording. As befits a work with so many instrumental interludes, the final minute of the opera is bequeathed to the orchestra alone, and, with soaring brass and booming timpani, it's a sublimely powerful conclusion. I barely have space even to mention their comparably stunning performance of the Sinfonietta, which is full of virtuosity from every section, including some magisterial brass playing in the outer movements, and with every delicate entry from harp, woodwind, and strings immaculately in place. Just like the Vixen before it, it's immensely characterful and breathtakingly executed.
Lucy Crowe (Vixen), Gerald Finley (Forester), Sophia Burgos (Fox), Jan Martiník (Badger/Parson), Peter Hoare (Mosquito/Rooster/Schoolmaster), Hanno Müller-Brachmann (Harašta), London Symphony Orchestra, London Symphony Chorus, Sir Simon Rattle
Available Formats: 2 SACDs, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC