Best played in a pine for­est on a starry night

JANACEK: GLAGOLITIC MASS

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - THE CRITICAL LIST - By Ivan Hewett

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.

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