JANÁČEK Glagolitic Mass (Bělohlávek)
There are few more uplifting works in the orchestral repertoire than Janáček’s Sinfonietta, especially when its opening fanfares return in the finale, a burst of big hearted optimism. And this Janáček collection from Decca is uplifting in its own way, forming a wonderful tribute to the artistry of the late Jiří Bělohlávek. These recordings, made with his beloved Czech Philharmonic in Prague’s Rudolfinum, date from October 2013 to February 2017, just three months before he died.
Bělohlávek was the Czech conductor of choice in this repertoire. Few will forget his performances of Jenůfa in various cities in 2016, guiding Karita Mattila through her transition from the title-role on to her thrilling debut as the Kostelnička. He could get under the skin of Janáček’s music, drawing out its folk roots and speech rhythms, its soul-searching and truthfulness, its sheer humanity.
The main work here is the Glagolitic Mass, given an expansive performance of great depth. Like Tomáš Netopil in his Prague RSO account on Supraphon, Bělohlávek uses the 1927 version of the score prepared by Jiří Zahrádka, which differs slightly from Paul Wingfield’s original version favoured by Charles Mackerras. Bělohlávek takes a weightier approach than Netopil, rounded brass satisfyingly rich. The Prague Philharmonic Choir (repeating their services for Supraphon) are terrific but the soloists are mixed. The bass lacks the necessary power but Hibla Gerzmava soars in the soprano lines and the robust tenor of Stuart Neill has its impressive moments. Aleš Bárta dashes off the eccentric organ solo before the closing Intrada with delicious relish.
The Sinfonietta is a joy from first to last, an unbuttoned delight. The low brass is great, rasping and grunting and belching merrily at the garrulous woodwinds in ‘The Castle’ second movement. Yearning strings come into their own in ‘The Queen’s Monastery’ and Bělohlávek builds brass layers expertly in ‘The Street’. This is a recording to challenge my current favourite – José Serebrier’s account with the Czech State Philharmonic Brno, in splendid sound and bursting with bonhomie on Reference Recordings.
A second, shorter disc contains a fine reading of the rhapsody Taras Bulba and a comparative rarity: The Fiddler’s Child, a ‘Ballad’ for violin and orchestra based on a poem by Svatopluk Čech. It’s an atmospheric piece – a ghostly little tone poem – and is given a persuasive performance to end this memorial to a great Czech master.