Best played in a pine forest on a starry night
JANACEK: GLAGOLITIC MASS
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Jiří Bĕlohlávek Decca
The Glagolitic Mass is one of the late, great works of Czech composer Leoš Janáček. Until his 60s, Janáček was considered a minor composer of folk arrangements and director of a provincial organ school – then the Prague premiere of his opera Jenůfa in 1916 propelled him to world fame.
The work is worlds away from a conventional mass, even though the words of the Glagolitic text are very like those of the Latin Mass (Glagolitic is the name of the alphabet invented by St Cyril to write down the Gospel in old Slavic). The composer said the piece should really be performed in a pine forest, on a starry night, not in a church. The best performances catch that feeling of a piece composed more in praise of nature than the Christian god.
This new recording from the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra is conducted by Jiří Bĕlohlávek, one-time chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. After he retired, he returned to his roots, making recordings of largely Czech repertoire, until cancer cut short this Indian summer. Alongside him are a terrific cast of soloists, all Czech apart from one, and the Prague Philharmonic Choir.
Most performers opt for the edition of the piece Janáček made in 1928, to iron out its rhythmic complexities and rough corners. Bĕlohlávek elects the more stark 1927 original, and the difference is marked, especially in the clash of five-in-a-beat against seven in the Introduction, and the fierce tussle of organ and orchestra in the Credo.
The performance may lack the adrenal excitement of Charles Mackerras’s well-known version, but it has compensating virtues. Of the four soloists, soprano Hibla Gerzmava and tenor Stuart Neill stand out for magnificent fullbloodedness, which they achieve without forcing their tone – something that could be said of the performance as a whole. Alongside the Mass are fine performances of Janáček’s late Sinfonietta, the tonepoem Taras Bulba, and the rarely heard The Fiddler’s Child. In all, it’s as fine an introduction to Janáček’s genius as you could wish.