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Hyperion Records

CDA67517 - Janácek: Orchestral Music

Recording details: Various dates
Caird Hall, Dundee, Scotland
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: September 2005
Total duration: 59 minutes 17 seconds

'The gifted young Israeli conductor Ilan Volkov masterminds a laudably disciplined and full-throated account of this bracing rarity … Hyperion's glowing natural sound-frame (courtesy of the Keener/Eadon production team working within Dundee's Caird Hall) sets the seal on a first-rate anthology' (Gramophone)

'Elizabeth Layton contributes silvery violin solos, and under its young Chief Conductor Ilan Volkov, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra is idiomatic and incisive … Warmly recommended' (BBC Music Magazine)

'The Eternal Gospel dates from 1913, and so is mature Janácek, sharing much with the sound world of his operas. As this sympathetic performance shows, it's a piece that has been cruelly neglected' (The Independent)

'This is a must for any Janácek fanatic. Not only does it contain a selection of his works rarely, if at all, found elsewhere, but also the performances and recording are superb in almost every way' (The Daily Telegraph)

'On this exemplary new Hyperion disc one almost feels one is hearing [them] properly for the first time. Ilan Volkov is an utterly convincing, idiomatic interpreter; and the recording, throughout the whole programme, is of demonstration standard … Enthusiastically recommended' (International Record Review)

'The Eternal Gospel is dynamite; if you care about Janácek's music you should have this' (Fanfare, USA)

'Janácek's 1913 cantata should be far better known, and certainly will be when word gets round about this ecstatic performance from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Edinburgh Festival Chorus under the inspirational Volkov. The music surges with lyricism—and complements the instrumental voice of the other Janácek rarities on this CD' (Financial Times)

Orchestral Music
Moon waltz  [3'50]
Before dawn  [5'44]

The years either side of the First World War were a time of renaissance for the Czech nation—and at the heart of this rebirth was the music of Leoš Janácek. The Fiddler’s Child, a ballad for solo violin (Elizabeth Layton in this exciting new recording) and orchestra, tells a harrowing tale of supernatural malfaisance as a parable for the struggles of a perennially oppressed nation.

Such a tone of double meaning is also to be found in The Eternal Gospel: overt religiosity becomes, for Janácek, an expression of the contemporary world’s need for reconciliation—the work received its premiere late in 1917. Similarly The Ballad of Blaník, dating from a couple of years later, adapts traditional folk material into an orchestral ‘miniature epic’ depicting the transformation of swords into ploughshares amid a scene of unabashed pastoral tranquillity.

Janácek’s two ‘Excursion of Mr Broucek’ operas—the ‘excursions’ in question being ‘to the moon’ and ‘to the fifteenth century’—concern themselves with traditional tales of medievalist escapism. Dedicated to ‘the liberator of the Czech nation’ (Tomáš Masaryk, the country’s president in the years following its separation from the Austro–Hungarian empire), this is music of an irrepressible vivacity and optimism; the suite recorded here (prepared after the composer’s death) draws together the considerable quantity of purely orchestral music from the operas—including some of Janácek’s original drafts.

The broad sweep of these orchestral works is given full flight in luxurious performances from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under its Chief Conductor Ilan Volkov.

Czechoslovakia’s independence was to be short-lived, but Janácek’s aspirational music can stand today as a symbol of what might have been.

Other recommended albums
'Handel: The Triumph of Time and Truth' (CDD22050)
Handel: The Triumph of Time and Truth
Buy by post £10.50 CDD22050  2CDs Dyad (2 for the price of 1)  

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
In the years just before and during World War I, Janácek’s cantata Amarus (composed in 1897, revised in 1906) was a work which enjoyed considerably wider success than any of his early operas, and it was influential in establishing his national reputation. Amarus had its Prague premiere on 6 October 1912; following this successful performance, Vilém Zemánek, the chief conductor of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra at the time, invited Janácek to compose a new orchestral work. This became The Fiddler’s Child, a ‘Ballad’ for solo violin and orchestra based on a poem by Svatopluk Cech. Janácek wasted no time getting down to work, and by the end of April 1913 the new piece was finished and sent to Zemánek – to whom the work is also dedicated. The first performance was scheduled for 15 March 1914, with Janácek himself conducting the Czech Philharmonic. The composer requested just two rehearsals and after the first of these he realized that there was too much further work to be done. As a result, he asked Zemánek to postpone the performance and despite attempts to reschedule the piece the following season, it was not until 14 November 1917 that The Fiddler’s Child finally had its premiere, with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Otakar Ostrcil. The score was published three years earlier, in 1914, by the Club of the Friends of Art in Brno – the organization which had already been responsible for issuing the first editions of Janácek’s In the Mists and, most importantly, Jenufa. Publication of The Fiddler’s Child was in celebration of Janácek’s sixtieth birthday, which fell on 3 July 1914. This, however, did little to encourage performances, and after Ostrcil’s 1917 performance it was another six years before the piece was heard again (in Prague on 14 January 1923). However, unlike most of Janácek’s works for large forces, The Fiddler’s Child was heard abroad during the composer’s lifetime: it was the first of Janácek’s orchestral works to be performed in England. On 3 May 1924 it was played at the Queen’s Hall, London, conducted by Sir Henry Wood, who was later to conduct the British premieres of Janácek’s Lachian Dances (at the 1930 Proms) and of the Glagolitic Mass (at the 1930 Norwich Festival, as the first half of a programme which concluded with the first performance anywhere of Vaughan Williams’s Job).

The tale on which the piece was loosely based is a gruesome one, and the village setting appealed to Janácek, who was himself the son of a village schoolmaster. A destitute fiddler has died and his sickly child has been entrusted to the care of an old woman, as has his fiddle. At midnight she sees an apparition of the dead fiddler at the cradle of his child – luring the infant with his music to a better world. At precisely the moment when the dead fiddler kisses the child, the old woman scares the ghoul away by making the Sign of the Cross. In the morning the all-powerful mayor of the village arrives to find the fiddle gone, and the old woman rocking the child’s lifeless body. Given Janácek’s own literary imagination, it is no surprise to find the composer making alterations to Cech’s plot. The original poem was printed in the first edition of the score, but this is misleading as Janácek’s changes are significant. The fiddler is still alive at the start of the tone-poem, the child falls mortally ill before the fiddler’s death, the old woman does not appear at all, and the mayor has a lowering musical presence throughout (a steady four-note theme first heard on cellos and double basses). There is music of great beauty in this short work, not least the fiddler’s promise of ‘wonderful dreams’ (Janácek’s phrase) which is shattered when his child dies. Janácek had already written works such as 1.X.1905 for piano, and the three choruses Kantor Halfar, Marycka Magdónova and 70,000 which left no doubt about his sympathy for the underdog, the freedom-fighter, and the free spirit. In The Fiddler’s Child he returns to the same idea: the mayor is presented very much as the oppressor, and Janácek’s message is clear – it is thanks to people like him that the fiddler and his child suffered in the first place.

It may well have been the successful Prague performance of Amarus that also served as the impetus for Janácek to compose his next choral-orchestral work. The Eternal Gospel, a ‘Legend’ for soprano and tenor soloists, mixed chorus and orchestra, was written in 1913, straight after The Fiddler’s Child. The text is by Jaroslav Vrchlický and had been published in his collection Frescoes and Tapestries in 1891. The title is borrowed from The Book of Revelation (14:6): ‘Then I saw an angel flying from mid-heaven, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those on earth, to every race, tribe, language and nation.’ Subsequently, the title The Eternal Gospel was given to the commentary on Revelation by the medieval mystic Joachim of Fiore, the most important apocalyptic thinker of his age who was consulted by the likes of Richard the Lionheart (at Messina during the winter of 1190–91), and who died around 1201. It is Joachim of Fiore who is the central figure of Vrchlický’s poem, and his part is taken by the solo tenor in Janácek’s cantata. The solo violin and solo soprano represent the angel and his gospel of love.

This may seem an unlikely choice of subject for the resolutely agnostic Janácek, but the composer himself gave a clue to its appeal when he described the cantata’s opening theme as representing ‘open arms longing to embrace the whole world’. In short, what drew Janácek to the text was its visionary humanity rather than Joachim’s biblical exegesis. The result is a score that is full of memorable and surgingly lyrical musical ideas, ending with a joyful proclamation of the Kingdom of Love. The first performance was at the Smetana Hall in Prague on 5 September 1917. The conductor on this occasion was Jaroslav Kricka, and the soprano soloist was Gabriela Horvátová who had triumphed as the Kostelnicka in the Prague premiere of Jenufa the previous year, and who was, at the time, involved in a torrid and passionate correspondence with Janácek.

The grandest of Janácek’s overtly nationalistic works are, paradoxically, also a pair of rather bitter satires: The Excursion of Mr Broucek to the Moon and The Excursion of Mr Broucek to the Fifteenth Century, based on the popular stories by Svatopluk Cech. This pair of operas was composed over more than ten years, and involved at least as many librettists. Janácek began work on the ‘moon’ opera (intending to compose only that) in 1908 and after a fraught and agonizing decade it was finally completed in 1917. On 16 March that year Janácek sent a final request to his librettist F S Proházka. Just eight days later, on 24 March, in what seems in retrospect like an exercise in masochism, he asked Proházka if he would like to turn his hand to a completely new project: a libretto based on Cech’s fifteenth-century excursion for Broucek. Happily, work proceeded very quickly on this second opera and in December 1917 Janácek had finished the fifteenth-century excursion apart from some revisions, and he had also made some significant changes to the moon excursion. Janácek’s operatic diptych (or ‘Bilogy’ as he described it) about the kind of beer-stained moral vacuum that is personified by Mr Broucek contains some of his most radiantly aspirational music, and it also includes some extended orchestral – or largely orchestral – passages.

The first movement of the present suite is the prelude to The Excursion of Mr Broucek to the Moon. This is followed by the ‘Moon Waltz’, danced by the deliciously arty moon creatures – music of irrepressible energy which has an unstoppable momentum similar to some of the faster waltz music in Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier (written at much the same time as Janácek’s opera). The third movement begins with the lovely interlude which leads us back from the moon near the end of the first excursion, and leads into the tender duet between the young lovers Málinka and Mazal which brings the moon opera to a quietly rapturous (and rather Puccinian) close. The Excursion of Mr Broucek to the Fifteenth Century is both a grander and more serious opera, set in 1420 at a critical period in the history of the Czech lands when the Catholic Emperor Sigismund attempted to seize power with a Pan-European Crusader army – a move that was fiercely resisted by the Hussites. Music from the spectacular scene in Prague’s Tyn Church, with a gigantic Hussite Chorale (complete with organ, bells, and – in the original opera – a Bohemian bagpiper) forms the fourth movement of this suite. Finally, the climactic scene of the opera (and the entire ‘Bilogy’) is the victory celebration in the Old Town Square in Prague, following the famous victory by the Hussites over Sigismund’s forces in the Battle of Vítkov. This passage began as purely orchestral music, to which Janácek later (at the request of Gustav Schmoranz, the producer of the 23 April 1920 premiere at the Prague National Theatre) added vocal parts to welcome the victorious General Zizka and his officers. Thus the version in the suite provides a chance to hear what Janácek’s first thoughts were. In the opera itself, Broucek’s own craven cowardice is pitilessly exposed at the end of this scene before his undignified return to reality (he wakes up in a booze-soaked stupor, emerging from a beer-barrel), but in the suite a neat cut from the height of the procession to the closing bars of the work bring things to a swift and life-affirming close.

The published score of The Excursions of Mr Broucek includes a dedication ‘To the Liberator of the Czech Nation, Dr T G Masaryk’. The Ballad of Blaník – composed during 1919 – is similarly inscribed to Masaryk, the founding President of Czechoslovakia, though this dedication did not appear on the first edition (1958) of the music. The work was inspired by Janácek’s patriotism and a desire to celebrate the new-found independence (linguistic as well as political) of his country. The programme of the work is drawn from a poem of the same title by Jaroslav Vrchlický, but as Jaroslav Vogel has observed, the epic subject matter of the poem is perhaps rather too expansive to be encompassed in an orchestral work lasting less than ten minutes. Vrchlický writes of Jíra, a young man, taking a walk on Blaník Hill one Good Friday and recalling the legend of St Václav (Wenceslas) and the Knights of Blaník lying asleep but ready to rise up to defend the Czech nation in times of peril. The side of the hill suddenly opens, Jíra is amazed by the heroic sight which confronts him and the rock crashes shut behind him (a moment of considerable dramatic potential which – as Vogel points out – Janácek seems to ignore entirely). Jíra falls asleep and wakes to see the same figures, but miraculously their swords have been turned into ploughshares: the weapons of war have been transformed into implements of peace. Jíra leaves this scene; on the way home he catches his own reflection while drinking from a stream and sees that he has become an old man. He returns to his village unrecognized by anyone save the skylark which sings above him.

It is easy to see the appeal for Janácek of this poem (first published in 1885), with its clear relevance to national reawakening following the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and of peaceful regeneration after the Great War. The first performance was in Brno on 21 March 1920 when the piece was given with the title The Knights of Blaník. It was conducted by Frantisek Neumann who went on to give the premieres of most of Janácek’s late operas, but the performance was not a success and the work received only three more outings during the composer’s lifetime. It was Janácek’s pupil Bretislav Bakala who revived the work for its first publication, thirty years after Janácek’s death.

Nigel Simeone © 2005

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