JANÁCEK: Sinfonietta. Lachian Dances. Taras Bulba (Rhapsody for Orchestra).
Orchestral suites from The Makropulos Affair and The Cunning Little Vixen; Prelude to From the House of the Dead; Jealousy.
Czech State Philharmonic of Brno/José Serebrier, cond.

REFERENCE RECORDINGS RR 2103 (2 CDs) (M) (DDD) TT: 65:05 & 59:40

(These originally were issued separately, RR 65 & RR 75; they now are issued as a "two-fer" 2-CD set, two HDCD disks for the price of one.  Roger Dettmer reviewed both; the two reviews follow:

As Stokowski recognized when he chose 22-year old José Serebrier to be associate conductor of his American Symphony Orchestra, the Uruguayan-born conductor was possessed of an outstanding talent. (It was, however, hyperbole to call him "the greatest master of orchestral balance.") This maestro of Russo-Polish parentage made an international splash with his RCA recording of Ives' Fourth Symphony—a benchmark that nothing since by him on discs, and there have been plenty, has quite equaled. Here, though, he scores in two-thirds of a brilliantly recorded Janácek program with the resident orchestra of the composer's adopted city—quite the best orchestra in the Czech Republic after the national Philharmonic based in Prague.

Some of us vintage types learned the 1926 Sinfonietta, composed by a 72-year-old in his belated prime and originally called Military Sinfonietta, from a Brno recording by Janácek's student Bretislav Bakala, founder of this State Philharmonic in the prewar '30s. On a Supraphon mono LP, it was wild, wooly, and incomparably exciting—not with the technical authority of such later exponents as Karel Ancerl, Vaclav Neumann, or Sir Charles Mackerras, but all the more exhilarating for that very wooly wildness (I've not heard either of the CD transfers). The work was designed for outdoor performance by forces including 12 trumpets, 2 bass trumpets, 4 trombones, 4 horns, 3 tubas, plural woodwinds (5-3-4-1), and celebratory percussion.

Serebrier and the Brno players start almost suavely, but long before the end have built up a head of steam that challenges the best, with a clarity and sureness of detail in Keith Johnson's recording that replicate concert perspectives in spacious Stadion Hall. The Vienna Philharmonic with Mackerras produce a louder sound, but softened -- the difference, arguably, between German with a Viennese accent, and the Slavic crispness of Czech.

The six Lachian Dances, originally composed in 1889 and retouched in 1924, are amiably Brahmsical although Moravian in grammar. They're not collectively the best of Janácek, yet sound unexpectedly bracing in this performance -- simply the best (of not many) I've ever heard.

Where RR-65 lets down—not badly, or lamely, but nonetheless disappointingly—is in the three-movement rhapsody Taras Bulba, based on Gogol's retelling of Ukrainian folk history, completed in 1918. Both its bloody scenario and emotional raptus are played down rather than up by Serebrier, as if to poeticize what is rousingly polemical (the music can't be vulgarized if played as written). Here the orchestra lacks heft—a manpower shortage, perhaps?—and Taras Bulba, the populist Tatar hero, loses thereby. In this, either the Vienna or Czech Phils deliver all of the goods, having said which, caveat Simon Rattle on an EMI CD, overpraised by his po'faced countrymen in various if not sundry Britmags.


Operatic Suites/Preludes

This is not a "new" release (it was recorded in July 1996), but it is the second installment in a Janácek series by Serebrier and his impressive Brno-based orchestra that one hopes will multiply in the years to come.

To allay any confusion that Jealousy might cause, it is the "original prelude" to the composer's breakthrough opera, Jenufa, by which time he was well into middle age. The "symphonic synthesis" that Serebrier has made from The Makropulos Affair—an eerie, mostly parlando opera from 1923-25 based on Karel Capek's play, about a singer who has lived for three centuries and is tiring of it—doesn't change any of the original orchestration. It is 31 minutes of vivid music that I prefer experiencing in the opera house (or as an orchestral tour-de-force, such as here) rather than having to listen to it in its vocal entirety on discs or radio.

The suite from The Cunning Little Vixen, Janácek's fanciful opera about forest creatures, is the work of conductor Vacláv Talich, retouched by Vacláv Smetacek, and departs considerably from the original scoring, albeit charmingly as well as briefly.

The composer didn't live to complete From the House of the Dead, based on Dostoyevsky's memoir of Siberian imprisonment, and the text used until recently was the posthumous work of Osvald Chlubna and Bretislav Bakala. Circa 1960, however, it was edited by Rafael Kubelik, whose version Sir Charles Mackerras edited in turn, and recorded for London, based on scoring the composer completed before his death in 1928. Reference Recordings doesn't say which version of the Prelude is played here, but the performance sounds bleakly beautiful, as befits the subject.

Recording engineer Keith Johnson captures especially luxuriant and powerful sound in Stadion Hall at Brno. Except that 20 minutes more of music could have fit on what is a premium price CD, it outclasses Frantisek Jílek with the Czech Philharmonic on Supraphon/Denon, who shares some of the same material.

R. D.