Editor’s Choice Orchestral Recording – August 2015

After some wonderful recordings for Chandos with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Edward Gardner here continues the series he began as the newly-appointed Chief Conductor of the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra with a second volume devoted to Janácˇek’s orchestral works.

For this listener at least, the highlight of the first volume (CHSA5142) – and this despite superlative accounts of the Sinfonietta and The Cunning Little Vixen Suite – wasn’t an orchestral work at all, but the gorgeous Capriccio for piano left hand, flute/piccolo, two trumpets, three trombones and tenor tuba. I put that down partly to novelty – I wasn’t familiar with the piece – and partly to the refined pianism of Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, who even with one hand tied behind his back, so to speak, cannot suppress a characteristically Gallic lyricism.

There’s something of Bavouzet’s precision in violinist James Ehnes’s fearless, fluent negotiation of extremes of interval and register in Janácˇek’s chamber-like ‘violin concerto’ The Wandering of a Little Soul – actually a realisation by Miloš Šteˇdronˇ and Leoš Faltus (the same team who reconstructed Janácˇek’s unfinished symphony The Danube, also recorded here) of a draft for the overture to his opera From the House of the Dead. This satisfyingly flavoursome work is replete with Janácˇek’s trademark Moravian folk inflections and earthy narrative drive. The playing from all concerned is as punchy and committed as you could hope for.

Where the Sinfonietta was the ‘big’ work on Volume One, here it’s undoubtedly the rhapsody after Gogol’s bloody short story, Taras Bulba. Gardner relinquished his role as the English National Opera’s Music Director to take up with the Bergen Philharmonic and he brings to purely orchestral music an imaginative opera conductor’s ear for colour, drama and a true singing line (and here mention should be made of his terrific Mendelssohn cycle with the City of Birmingham SO, also for Chandos).

In that respect, as well as in matters of interpretative finesse, he strikes one as a worthy successor to that other great Janácˇek interpreter Sir Charles Mackerras. This is a Taras Bulba to be treasured as much for its brutal clarity as for its ironically baleful moments of repose. Also included are, apart from the aforementioned The Danube (which incidentally features some stratospheric soprano work from Susanna Andersson) Jealousy, originally intended as a prelude to Jenu˚fa and the symphonic poems The Ballade of Blaník and The Fiddler’s Child.