Janácek Operatic and Orchestral Works

Author: 
John Warrack

Janácek Operatic and Orchestral Works

  • (The) Makropulos Affair
  • Lachian dances
  • From the House of the Dead
  • Mládí (Youth)
  • Nursery Rhymes

Sir Charles Mackerras's Janacek opera series has been one of the major recording events of recent years, so it is high time for the works to be reissued on CD. From the House of the Dead (the 1980 Gramophone Record of the Year) was here recorded for the first time in its proper, original version; and this, the fruit of brilliant musicological work by Dr John Tyrrell, revealed it as even more of a masterpiece—a work, indeed, to count among the handful of masterpieces produced by twentieth-century opera. The loss of the final chorus, a sentimental addition, is but the most striking of the clarifications: throughout, the sound is sharper, the textures are sparer, and this serves both to sharpen the effect and to give the singers more clearly differentiated support. They are led, nominally, by Goryanchikov; but though Dalibor Jedlicka sings him warmly and well, the character is not really the hero of an opera that has no heroes and in which all are heroes. The prisoners are skilfully contrasted in Janacek's writing so as to make an apparently random yet actually well structured group, and there is not a weak performance among them.
The Makropulos Affair has, of course, very much a heroine, in the tragic figure of Emilia Marty; and Elisabeth Soderstrom gives one of her greatest recorded performances. She succeeds amazingly in conveying the complexity of the character, the elegance yet flinty cynicism, the aloofness yet vulnerability, the latent warmth that can flower into such rich expressive phrases and then be reined in with a sense of nervy panic. She is only really alarmed by Prus, the most formidable of the men around her, powerfully sung by Vaclav Zitek; she has amused tenderness for poor silly Hauk-Sendorf, another captivating little vignette from Beno Blachut. Mackerras is again masterly: the opera operates in many ways at a much swifter pace, with the narrative speeding by in a series of graphic strokes whose sharpness of characterization can need familiarity for its full impact. A recording is an excellent way of really getting to know such a work; but this is a recording to set among great performances of it.
As with From the House of the Dead, there is an essay by John Tyrrell that not only gives the listener the best possible introduction to the opera but is also a contribution to scholarship. These essays are repeated to all intents and purposes unaltered from the original issues, complete with music examples. There is also a Czech-English libretto. A few drawings, facsimiles and photographs have had to go, given the small CD booklet format, which is a pity.
The extra space available on CD allows, it will be seen, some generous fill-ups. Mladi and the Nursery rhymes come from David Atherton's splendid 1981 set of five LPs devoted to Janacek; the Lachian Dances set is a rather less successful companion to Makropulos. Nevertheless, the operas are what count, and there need be nothing but an enthusiastic welcome for their return on Compact Disc.'

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