Recording of the Year – Sensuous Janáček double bill by Rattle and the LSO

Among the twentieth century music theatre, the late operas of Leoš Janáček inhabit an intriguing realm of their own. Just think of the proto-Hithchcock suspense of The Makropulous Affair (Věc Makropulos, 1923-25), an operatic thriller defying the laws of time, or the voices of the prisoners of a Siberian camp in From the House of the Dead (Z mrtvého domu, 1927-28), based on a bleak novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky.

However, The Cunning Little Vixen (Příhody lišky Bystroušky, 1921-23), an autumnal meditation on life itself, might very well be the most astonishing score in the Janáček oeuvre.

Subtitled simply as an opera in three acts, The Cunning Little Vixen is, in fact, a thoroughly original stage work, both in terms of musical conception and dramaturgy. Although the libretto of Vixen departs from a clear-cut plotline, its three acts and nine scenes yield to a marvellous narrative whole, depicting the cycle of life, in all its comedy and tragedy.

Based on a serialized novella Liška Bystrouška published in the Brono newspaper Lidové noviny in 1920, written by Rudolf Těsnohlídek, with illustrations by Stanislav Lolek, The Cunning Little Vixen meditates on the adventures of Vixen Sharp-Ears (Liška Bystrouška), and the lives and times of fellow animals and human characters along her way.

Freethinking and crafty, Bystrouška is an embodiment of a modern woman. Her actions can be seen as social and political commentary, often clad in the guise of bittersweet comedy. The main human characters, an aging Forester and his boomer friends, are depicted with warmth and and sympathy, not forgetting the unintentional parody their actions often lead to.

Both in terms of text and music, The Cunning Little Vixen is the most loving and fundamentally honest portrayal of life and nature, aptly combining the mundane and the fabled.

Janáček’s gorgeously brilliant score is a celebration of imagination and craft. The vocal lines are often derived from natural speech, with their melodic profile and rhythmic contour rooted in vernacular Czech. Although rooted in everyday speech, Janáček’s vocal parts soar with beauty and momentum.

The orchestral score is clad in riveting harmonies, enhanced by repetitive motives and distinctive rhythms. Sometimes mere ostinato figures, Janáček’s musical motives are often both eloquently simple and tremendously expressive. Interestingly, the orchestral fabric of The Cunning Little Vixen can be heard as a precursor to Bernard Herrmann’s masterful 1955 film score The Trouble with Harry, an autumnal affair written for Hitchcock’s comic thriller.

Janáček began composing the music on 26 June 1921, finishing the autograph score on 17 March 1923. The first copy of the score, intended for Janáček’s publisher, Universal Edition, was completed on 10 October 1923, followed by a second copy, intended for the premiere performances at the Brno National Theatre, with new fanfares added to the final scene in the course of stage rehearsals in October 1924.

The celebrated world premiere took place on 6 November 1924, following an intense two-month rehearsal period. With the composer present throughout the process, each and every detail was touched upon, resulting in occasional clashes between Janáček and the conductor František Neumann. Nevertheless, the process was a happy and inspired one, and thanks to those conflicts, many details and amendments were enterd in the conductor’s score, in agreement with the composer, providing us with some key information regarding to performance.

Further performance suggestions were contributed to the critical edition of the score by Sir Charles Mackerras, whose unparalleled hands-on experience in conducting the Janáček oeuvre has provided essential insight on the challenges presented by The Cunning Little Vixen.

Among the Vixen discography, Mackerras’s 1982 recording for Decca, featuring the Vienna Philharmonic and a wonderful cast, including Lucia Popp, Eva Randová

and Dalibor Jedlička has been a long-standing favourite, alongside notable recorded performances conducted by Vaclav Neumann on Supraphon (1958) and Sir Simon Rattle on EMI (1991), later reissued by Chandos (2003).

Twenty nine years after Rattle’s first recorded foray into the Janáček masterpiece, sung in English at the Royal Opera House, the Music Director of the London Symphony Orchestra is back at the score on the new LSO Live release.

Lucy Crowe in the title role of The Cunning Little Vixen in Peter Sellars’s semi-staged Barbican production with the London Symphony Orchestra and Music Director Sir Simon Rattle. © Mark Allan

Recorded live on 27 and 29 June 2019 at the Barbican, the performance is sung in the original Czech. Semi-staged by Peter Sellars, the London production was a follow-up to the performances in Belin on 12-14 October 2017, available for streaming via the Digital Concert Hall of the Berlin Philharmonic.

Some members of the cast appeared on both the London and Berlin performances, including soprano Lucy Crowe in the title role and bass-baritone Gerald Finley as the Forester. In addition, the Barbican cast featured Sophia Burgos as the Fox, tenor Peter Hoare as the Schoolmaster andbass Jan Martiník as Parson, to name but a few of the extraordinary singers involved.

What a terrific team the London cast makes on the new recording! Gerald Finley, Rattle’s Golaud on those thrilling 2016 Barbican production of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande (1893-1902) as well as his Bluebeard on this year’s captivating LSO St Lukes stream of Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle (1911/1912/1917/1921), gives us a wonderful portrayal of the down-to-earth Forester, resulting in a praiseworthy performance.

Lucy Crowe’s Vixen is a multi-layered character; feisty, at times, yet movingly amorous and full of life. Whether smashing the patriarchy in the henhouse of sharing a moonlit evening with the Fox, splendidly sung by Sophia Burgos, Crowe’s vocal technique is ever perfectly attuned. 

The brilliant trebles of the LSO Discovery Voices, appearing as fox cubs and other animals of the forest, deliver the most inspiring performances in the first and the seventh scenes. 

Multi-tasking as cackling hens and the voices of the forest, in both naturalist and ethereal sense, the London Symphony Chorus once again demonstrates its tremendous flexibility and profound musicality. The marvellous nuptial choral ballet closing the second act being the definitive highlight of the performance, the LSC performance yields to the most joyful enchantment imaginable. 

Excellently prepared by Chorus Director Simon Halsey and Chorus Masters David Lawrence and Lucy Griffits, the London Symphony Chorus and the LSO Discovery Voices shine on the new recording, ever well balanced with the orchestra and the soloists. 

The masterful players of the London Symphony Orchestra are perfectly at home with Janáček’s musical fabric. With Rattle, they provide a beguiling performance, awash with sensuous harmonies and ravishing colours. 

From the spellbinding opening string textures, a combination of spiccato and col legno, to the sunlit horn fanfares of the closing scene, the LSO deliver an astonishing account of Janáček’s fantastic score. Ever stringently balanced by Rattle, the orchestral texture is unraveled with admirable translucence, without compromising the fervent glow of the full symphonic ensemble. 

The instrumental and vocal lines, both solo and massed, are bound together with impeccable sense of proportion and balance by Rattle, whose in-depth knowledge of the score is evident throughout the top-class performance. As a whole, the new recording of The Cunning Little Vixen is one of the finest ever committed to disc.  

Sir Simon Rattle conducting The Cunning Little Vixen at the Barbican in June 2019. © Mark Allan

On the new album, The Cunning Little Vixen is coupled with another late masterpiece, the Sinfonietta(1926).

Recorded in conjunction with rehearsals and performance at the Barbican on 18-19 September 2018, the Rattle-led account appeared as an opening piece in a wonderful LSO programme, featuring Szymanowski Violin Concerto No. 1 (1916), with Janine Jansen,and Sibelius Symphony No. 5 (1914-15/1916/1919).

Scored for a large orchestra and an extra brass ensemble of nine trumpets, two bass trumpets and two tenor tubas, the Sinfoniettais a festive piece, clad in the sunlit haze of radiant autumn colours.

Janáček’s initial inspiration for composing the Sinfonietta, a spirited affair, taking the composer only a month to put down, came with a commission to write music for the Eighth nationwide Sokol Rally in Prague, a key event for the recently established Czechoslovak Republic.

To begin with, Janáček drafted a series of fanfares for the occasion. However, none of these ended up in the completed score. Even though the scope of the composition gained more weight as it went, the idea of fanfares prevailed, giving rise to the Sinfonietta’s unique instrumental set-up, where a symphony orchestra and a military band meet.

In Janáček’s day, military bands were commonplace throughout Czechoslovakia. With his chosen orchestration, Janáček was joining the worlds of vernacular and symphonic music-making, in order to celebrate the whole nation. The score of Sinfonietta can thus be seen as a bridge, clad in the most astounding music.

Cast in five movements and lasting twenty five minutes, the Sinfonietta is a feast of rhythm and texture, glistening in the full spectrum of sonic light.

In the course of the rehearsals for the premiere, Janáček gave specific titles to each movement, giving rise to a loose, programmatic outline. These titles, reprinted in the LSO Live booklet, were later abandoned by the composer, and they do not appear in any published versions of the score. Absent from the autograph manuscript too, Janáček’s only public reference to the titles can be found in his article Moje město (My Town) published in December 1927.

Nevertheless, like all orchestral works by Janáček, the score of Sinfonietta does bear an inherent dramaturgy. The musical fabric is throughly evocative, giving rise to some splendid imagery.

The first movement is scored for the brass ensemble and timpani alone. A two minute tableau of fanfares, the music seems to pick up where The Cunning Little Vixen left off. On a personal level, I simply cannot hear this movement without the image of Gandalf and Pippin riding to Minas Tirith in the first chapter of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Return of the King, the third part of The Lord of the Rings. (1937-1955).

In Tolkien’s words ”…white banners broke and fluttered from the battlements in the morning breeze”, while ”a clear ringing as of silver trumpets” sounded high and far. In My Town,Janáček reminisces how the day of Czechoslovakia’s declaration of independence ”a glow of freedom was conjured up over the town [Brno]…”, accompanied by ”the blare of the victorious trumpets… and a vision of the town’s expansion”.

Whatever the associations, the first movement is one of the most rousing openings ever conceived for a symphonic work. For the LSO brass and Guest Principal Timpani Mark Robinson, Janáček’s score provides their moment to shine. And that’s what they do with Rattle!

From the silvery lines of the allegretto introduction, summoning the gold-hued radiance of the main allegro, to the elated closing bars, the first movement is a joyful affair.

The orchestra joins in the second movement. Divided into five sections, the movement’s dramaturgy is built upon contrasting textures, set side by side. The task of maintaining continuity from one section to another in entrusted to the conductor, whose tempi and balancing is of key importance.

Rattle and the LSO give a fabulous performance, with the music unfolding in the most natural manner imaginable. Admirably nuanced, Janáček’s score is clad in alluring sonorities. In similar vein, the third movement is rooted in firm sonic architecture, yielding to a compelling sonic canvas.

Preceding the moderato coda, in the prestissimo section on bars 153-201, Janáček evokes the most fascinating musical texture, pre-echoing Philip Glass’s trademark sound. With Rattle and the LSO, the pulsating fabric is brought to sound with invigorating drive and solid rhythmic accuracy.

The brief fourth movement, scored for the orchestra alone, is conceived as an interlude, paving the way for the finale.

As manifested throughout the Sinfonietta, Janáček shuns away from the (Austro-Germanic) idea of symphonic development. Instead, the musical dramaturgy arises from the tensions between contrasting blocks of rhythms and textures.

To complete the musical cycle, the opening fanfares, recurring in the second movement, reappear in the finale, bringing the Sinfonietta to its dazzling close. To paraphrase Thomas Adès, the resurgent brass textures seem to herald the genesis of music itself.

London Symphony Orchestra and Sir Simon Rattle in rehearsal at the Barbican in September 2018. © Jari Kallio

Soaring above the symphonic ensemble, the extended LSO brass give a performance of a lifetime with Rattle, as the score builds up to its climax. Closing with a swift musical sunrise, the whole universe manifests itself in sound, with each instrumental voice dissolving into one resplendent sonority.

A perfect Janáček coupling, the LSO Live album is one of the finest of the Rattle era so far. Well recorded and skillfully engineered, the DSD 256fs (Sinfonietta) and 128fs (Vixen) masters come off beautifully on the two SACD album, in both 2.0 stereo and 5.1 surround guises.

The album is a laudable addition to the Janáček discography, one surely to stand the test of time. Here and now, it stands out as the recording of the year.

London Symphony Orchestra

Sir Simon Rattle, conductor

London Symphony Chorus

LSO Discovery Voices

Simon Halsey, chorus director

David Lawrence, chorus master

Lucy Griffits, chorus master

Lucy Crowe, soprano (Vixen Bystrouška)

Gerald Finley, bass-baritone (Forester)

Sophia Burgos, soprano (Fox, Chocholka)

Peter Hoare, tenor (Schoolmaster, Cock, Mosquito)

Jan Martiník, bass (Badger, Parson)

Hanno Müller-Brachmann, bass (Haraschta)

Paulina Malefane, soprano (Forester’s Wife, Owl, Woodpecker)

Anna Lapkovskaja, mezzo-soprano (Mrs Pasek, Dog)

Jonah Halton, tenor (Pasek)

Irene Hoogveld, soprano (Jay)

Leoš Janáček: The Cunning Little Vixen (Příhody lišky Bystroušky, 1921-23) – Opera in three acts

Leoš Janáček: Sinfonietta (1926) for orchestra

Recorded at the Barbican Centre, London, 18-19 September 2018 (Sinfonietta) and 27 & 29 June 2019 (Vixen)

LSO Live LSO0850 (2020), 2 SACD

© Jari Kallio 

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