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Janacek: Violin Concerto, The Ballad of Blanik, Taras Bulba - Ehnes / Gardner

Janacek: Violin Concerto, The Ballad of Blanik, Taras Bulba - Ehnes / Gardner

Chandos  CHSA 5156

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral


Janacek: Violin Concerto*, JW IX/10 "The Wandering of a Little Soul"; The Ballad of Blanik, JW VI/16; Taras Bulba, JW VI/15; Jealousy, JW VI/10; The Fiddler's Child**, JW VI/14; The Danube***, JW IX/7

James Ehnes, violin*
Melina Mandozzi, violin**
Susanna Andersson, soprano***
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra
Edward Gardner


This is the second volume in a series devoted to the orchestral works of Janácek, with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra and Edward Gardner. The repertoire on this disc includes some of the greatest programmatic pieces by the composer.

Unsurprisingly, the first piece featured here is Jealousy – his first declared piece of programme music, originally written to preface the opera Jenufa but never included in any production of it during his lifetime. Both The Ballad of Blaník and The Fiddler’s Child (also known as a ‘ballad for orchestra’) are characterised by the use of musicals symbols, reflecting the Czech poems on which the pieces are based and also some of the composer’s personal reflections and responses.

The one-movement Violin Concerto The Wandering of a Little Soul is a more mysterious piece, with uncertainties surrounding the title, the date of creation, and the goals of its composition. Like the unfinished Danube symphony, the version recorded here has been reconstructed by Miloš Štedron and Leoš Faltus from Janácek’s sketches.

An interpretation of the famous tale by Gogol, Taras Bulba was completed in 1915 and was Janácek’s most substantial orchestral work to date. It is inflected with folk dances, battle and horse-riding music, suffering and love, and brought to a grandiloquent apotheosis, in orchestration of almost cinematic vividness.

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Review by Graham Williams - May 6, 2015

The second volume of Edward Gardner's survey of Janáčeck's Orchestral Works is notable for the inclusion of some pieces seldom heard in the concert hall, but which provide a fascinating and worthwhile picture of the composer's output, particularly when performed and recorded as brilliantly as on this generously filled (77'48”) SACD.

The first item on the disc is an arresting performance of 'Jealousy' which was the original overture to the composer's third opera 'Jenufa'. One is immediately gripped by the vitality and thrust of the playing from the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra as well as the superb sound quality of the recording that together make this a most exhilarating start to Gardner's programme.

The composer began the composition of his atmospheric symphony 'The Danube' in the early 1920s, but Janáčeck's preoccupation with revision of his opera 'The Makropulos Affair' and other projects resulted in the work being put to one side. It remained unfinished at the time of his death and though first realised from the composer's sketches in 1948 by Osvald Chlubna it is heard here in a later version constructed by Leoš Faltus and Miloš Štedron in 1985. The piece is in four short movements each of which is orchestrated in Janáčeck's very individual style. This is especially true of the third section that includes a vocalise in coloratura style sung most winningly by soprano Susanna Andersson who manages the stratospherically high tessitura with ease.

Janáčeck's incomplete Violin Concerto, enigmatically subtitled 'The wandering of a Little Soul', started life as a draft version of the overture to 'From the House of the Dead'. Like the Danube Symphony it was also constructed by Faltus and Štedron from the composer's sketches in 1988. It is a striking composition with a predominantly rhapsodic violin part beautifully played here by James Ehnes while the orchestral accompaniment is vintage Janáčeck. Those who are familiar with 'From the House of the Dead' will recognise many of the opera's themes as the work progresses. Though lasting a mere 12 minutes the Concerto is full of incident and drama and well worth hearing.

On more familiar territory the disc also includes invigorating accounts of Janáčeck's two symphonic poems – 'The Ballad of Blanik' and 'The Fiddler's Child'; the latter benefiting from the supple and expressive playing of the Bergen Philharmonic's leader Melina Mendozzi.

The final item on the disc is a superb account of one of Janáčeck's most popular orchestral pieces – the Rhapsody for Orchestra 'Taras Bulba'. Gardner has the measure of this piece and his expansive reading of the final section 'The Prophesy and the Death of Taras Bulba', capped with tolling bells and a room shaking organ, could hardly be more resplendent. The assured playing of the Bergen Philharmonic is a joy throughout this recording. Strings are reproduced with a silky smoothness while brass and percussion are crisp and incisive.

Even when judged by the usual high standard the Chandos engineering team always achieve in the Bergen Philharmonic Hall, the results here are exceptional. There is a well-nigh perfect balance between detail and generous hall ambience. Gardner's masterly and sympathetic readings could hardly be given a more appropriate vehicle.

Excellent notes on the music by John Tyrrell, the undisputed authority on Janáčeck, put the seal on a superb release.

Copyright © 2015 Graham Williams and HRAudio.net

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Comment by Tony Reif - December 11, 2016 (1 of 2)

I listened to some of this and felt oddly disengaged. Everything was played well but it didn't much feel like Janacek. So I compared Jilek's 1992 recording of "Ballad of Blanick" (from Complete Orchestral Works, Supraphon) and immediately felt drawn in to Janacek's unique sound-world. Czech orchestras (in this case the Brno State Phil) and conductors know how this music taps in emotionally. So did Mackerras, who studied with Talich and of course continued to study and conduct Janacek over decades.

Comment by Tony Reif - December 18, 2016 (2 of 2)

Warming to Gardner's Janacek...For one thing, the sound is so much richer, fuller and more detailed than what Supraphon managed for Jilek - the finale of Taras Bulba for example is tremendous, really stirring. As I said, Bergen plays well, very well, and the soloists are fine. But Jilek and Brno have this music in their blood. The smaller units intersect so naturally, the larger sections flow together seamlessly; the tempi are often just a little swifter too, and the leaner, edgier, less differentiated sound also somehow contributes to the effect rather than only detracting. The narrative character and pace of the playing sweeps you up, right into the heart of the music. In comparison, Gardner remains a tad prosaic, less passionate. But still good - and to hear these works in such beautiful sound is certainly a treat.