Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen was, says Simon Rattle in his booklet note, “the piece that made me want to become an opera conductor”. His affection for the work, with which he made his Covent Garden debut in 1990 (available on Chandos’s Opera in English series), is self-evident in this vital live recording with the London Symphony Orchestra in its Barbican Hall home from 2019.
Comparisons between the two recordings are telling. Where the Chandos account finds Rattle leaning into the piece’s lyrical elements with Puccinian warmth, here he is clearly more interested in the darker, more dangerous undercurrents that lie beneath the fairy-tale surface. The difference, in literary terms, between Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm. (Occupying the middle ground is the still recommendable 1982 account by Charles Mackerras and the Vienna Phil on Decca.)
Informed by the adrenalin of a live performance semi-staged by director Peter Sellars, Rattle drives proceedings along with an appropriately theatrical immediacy that is wholly involving. Particularly effective is his conjuring of the forest’s atmosphere with pinpoint orchestral detailing picking out skittering animals, darting insects and trilling birds amidst blazes of dappled sunshine and crepuscular washes of fading daylight.
If the fear and fierceness that lies just beneath the music’s beguiling surface fantasy is never quite fully articulated – one suspects Sellars’ “half-baked” staging, as one reviewer described it, rather gets in the way – there’s enough pulsing muscle and poetic mien in the LSO’s heightened playing to more than satisfy. Textures are skilfully delineated and interwoven, Janáček’s delicate sylvan blending of the real and the fantastical lit up by moments of mischievous fun, lowering threat and slicing drama.
Pointedly idiomatic in the original Czech, the Vixen of Lucy Crowe, no stranger to the role, is a vivacious creation. Sassy, playful and bitingly sharp though she is, there’s touching tenderness and vulnerability in her duet with Sophia Burgos’s Fox.
Gerald Finley’s vividly characterised Forester is just as beautifully sung, rounded, warm and touchingly human as he makes his journey towards an eventual, ardently delivered epiphany. There’s solid support deep into the doubling-up cast, notably from Paulina Malefane’s wife, Hanno Müller-Brachmann’s Harašta, Peter Hoare’s Schoolmaster and Jan Martiník’s Parson. The sprightly Fox Cubs of seven young treble soloists, the LSO Symphony Chorus and LSO Discovery Voices add valuable contributions of their own.
Recorded live in 2018, the filler, Janáček’s Sinfonietta, is treated by the LSO’s brass and woodwinds to a faultless performance. Rattle’s second outing with the work on disc proves to be a more satisfyingly taut, crisply delineated, magisterial and profound encounter than his 1983 EMI recording with the Philharmonia Orchestra.
Jan Smaczny provides authoritative notes, but anyone hoping to listen along with the libretto will be disappointed by its absence in the booklet.
Work: The Cunning Little Vixen
Performers: Lucy Crowe s, Gerald Finley b-bar, London Symphony Orchestra/Simon Rattle
Label: LSO Live LSO0850 (2SACD)