August 26, 2013 2:52 pm

All the best: Janácek’s operas

A round-up of the finest recordings of the Czech composer’s operatic works
Leos Janacek©Getty

Leos Janacek

Shortly after the 1989 Velvet Revolution in Prague, I had the opportunity to interview the two conductors who had been most influential in establishing Janácek as a repertoire composer. One was Charles Mackerras, a blunt Australian; the other was Bohumil Gregor, a stubborn Czech. Mackerras introduced Katya Kabanova to London in 1951. Gregor did much the same for The Makropulos Case, The Cunning Little Vixen and From the House of the Dead in a number of European theatres in the 1960s and 1970s. Both conductors died some years ago, but their recordings set a benchmark for Janácek performing style.

Mackerras told me how, while forging an international career, he had pored over Janácek’s manuscripts at Brno, the composer’s home city, where he found significant details that had been overlooked. Gregor, who began his career at Prague’s Grand Opera of the Fifth of May in 1945, took a more instinctive approach, drawing on his experience of working with former associates of the composer. “The [Janácek] tradition was alive in the building,” he recalled. “For me it was like mother’s milk.”

Although their personalities and backgrounds were different, the two conductors had much in common. Mackerras may have been scholarly, but he was also a supremely practical musician and understood the language on which Janácek’s speech-rhythms are based. In 1946-7 he had studied in Prague with the doyen of Czech conductors, Václav Talich. As for Gregor, despite his empirical approach he knew the scores like the back of his hand, citing the nonsense word scasovka (cas = time) used by Janácek to indicate tempo relationships. It was Gregor’s belief that “You have to use your knowledge of his style to work out how it should sound” – words that could have tumbled out of Mackerras’s mouth.

Most of Mackerras’s Janácek discography is on Decca, the core of it comprising five operas he recorded with the Vienna Philharmonic in the 1970s: a complete box-set costs considerably less than buying them individually. Mackerras had the advantage of one of the world’s leading opera orchestras and a handful of “international” singers – including Elisabeth Söderstrom, who takes the title role in Jenufa, Katya Kabanova and The Makropulos Case. His recordings also feature important textual refinements, such as the Katya interludes and Kostelnicka’s soliloquy in Act One of Jenufa, which he uncovered at Brno.

Gregor made his Supraphon recordings in Prague at roughly the same time, but they were slow to circulate in the west and have never been as well known. What distinguishes them is their sense of Czech tradition and seamless ensemble, based on shared experience of performing the work many times in the language of the home audience.

My preferences are for Mackerras’s Vienna Katya – one of the greatest opera recordings ever made, better than his 1997 remake in Prague – and for Gregor’s Jenufa , which seethes with intensity and lyricism. Both feature the formidable Czech soprano Nadezda Kniplová, peerless as Kabanicha (Katya) and Kostelnicka (Jenufa). Gregor’s The Cunning Little Vixen , with the unforgettable Helena Tattermuschova in the title role, has the edge over Mackerras’s Vienna version with Lucia Popp, but Mackerras conducted a fine staged production in Paris in 1995 with Eva Jenis, and the DVD is worth watching.

In The Makropulos Case, a convoluted story that is hard work in audio format, both conductors’ studio recordings cede pride of place to the DVD of Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s mesmerising 1995 Glyndebourne production, with the imperious Anja Silja in the title role. This was the last of Lehnhoff’s memorable Janácek series on the Sussex Downs, all captured on film, with Jenufa (Roberta Alexander and Silja) making a deeper impact than Katya . The DVD of Glyndebourne’s latest Janácek, a cheesy Vixen , should be avoided.

From the House of the Dead, Janácek’s setting of the Dostoyevsky novel, is best experienced on the DVD of Patrice Chéreau’s 2007 Aix staging, though Mackerras and Gregor (the latter with legendary Czech tenor Beno Blachut) made excellent recordings. Neither recorded The Excursions of Mr Broucek , but there is a fine modern version conducted by Jirí Belohlávek, based on a concert performance he gave in London with a characterful Czech cast.

Karita Mattila’s Jenufa (CD from Covent Garden) and Katya (DVD from Madrid) are disappointing. Janácek aficionados should try foraging among less starry communist-era recordings now available on CD, such as Frantisek Jilek’s Brno Jenufa and Osud , both showcasing Vilem Pribyl’s classic Czech tenor.

This is part of an occasional series on building a library of classical music.

For more ‘All the Best’ round-ups from Andrew Clark:

Delius

La traviata

Handel’s Messiah

Mahler symphonies

Lutoslawski

Sergiu Celibidache

Wagner’s Ring

Carlos Kleiber

Goldberg Variations

Ravel’s piano music

Claudio Abbado

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