Jiří Bělohlávek passed away on 31 May 2017 at the age of seventy-one. This Janáček collection is among his final releases, the Sinfonietta dating from just a few months before he died. There is some suspicion that these are live recordings – Decca’s annotation doesn’t say – if not, then some coughs and noises-off suggest an easygoing producer, and there are a few instances of rudimentary editing. Furthermore the layout of the music is haphazard (the booklet notes are in yet another order), with Glagolitic Mass followed by Sinfonietta on disc one and, on the other CD, Taras Bulba preceding The Fiddler’s Child, and not enough seconds separate them. The Mass should have been by itself and the three orchestral works placed together in chronological order.
Glagolitic Mass (1927, texts and translations included in the booklet) has plenty of fervour, starry-sky ecstasy, dramatic connotations and intense conditions, the four vocal soloists suitably operatic (Stuart Neill heroic) and the Prague Philharmonic Choir is zealously seized of Janáček’s challenging demands, the Czech Philharmonic vibrant, detailed and seasoned to create a religious service – utilising the standard Mass texts, albeit in Old Slavonic – that can be heard in this composer’s setting as also pagan and secular. Aleš Bárta’s organ solos are flamboyant without stealing the show and the sound quality manages spaciousness, clarity and impact, although the perspective is not consistent. Nevertheless, this is a compelling performance that blazes with identification and conviction.
The Fiddler’s Child (commissioned in 1912, first heard five years later) is an eerie tale – deceased village fiddler returns to claim his son until the woman caring for the boy scares the apparition away; however, the infant is found dead. Not surprisingly, Janáček’s music features a violin (the rich-toned player not credited, and he or she should be) and overall is volatile and strange, something bizarre is brewing, enchanted if sinisterly, although mystery is sacrificed here by some solos being brought up-front, not least the bass clarinet. The Gogol-based Taras Bulba (1918) – conflict, Cossacks fighting Poles, Taras’s two sons and himself dead by the end but not before Bulba has a triumphant prophecy in favour of the Cossacks – is given a vibrant narrative, restless, edgy, with passion and clamour to the fore, culminating in a transcendental vision. Sinfonietta (1926), with its extra brass, receives a lusty and vivid outing, played with considerable relish and panache – heightened expressiveness – and disabusing what one imagines was then the conductor’s parlous state. If this was Jiří Bělohlávek’s final recording, Decca is not specific enough, he went out on a high.