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 Recording of the Week  Edward Gardner conducts orchestral music by Janáček

An exciting new project begins today on the Chandos label, with the first volume in a series of orchestral works by Czech composer Leoš Janáček, conducted by Edward Gardner and featuring the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra.

Edward Gardner
Edward Gardner

The main work on the disc is the Sinfonietta, and it makes for a thrilling opener. Although the work is for full orchestra, the first movement is a fanfare scored for just brass and timpani (specifically the unusual combination of nine trumpets, two tenor tubas, and two bass trumpets). The Bergen brass play magnificently, with some wonderfully swelling crescendos, and pinpoint accuracy in the rapid quavers. It’s a great start to the piece, and indicative of the quality of playing present throughout. As soon as the woodwind enter at the beginning of the second movement, you can tell that you’re in for an incredibly characterful performance, and this is certainly continued in the third movement by the strings, who play with such warmth. The piece ends as it began: the material from the opening fanfare returns, but this time the brass are accompanied by the full orchestra, and the effect is highly satisfying.

Speaking of atypical brass scoring, this is then followed by Capriccio, a work scored for piano left-hand, flute/piccolo, two trumpets, three trombones, and tenor tuba. It’s a fascinating piece that again features some impressive playing, especially from tenor tuba player Hans Andreas Kjølberg, and there are some pleasingly fruity low notes from the bass trombone. The piano part is taken by French pianist, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, and such luxury casting really pays off, for Bavouzet brings elegance and grace to his contributions. You might think that a solitary flute wouldn’t stand a chance against such a collection of brass instruments, but such is Gardner’s careful attention to balance that I could hear every single note of its contribution.

I’ve mentioned Janáček’s unconventional instrumentation a couple of times; like Mussorgsky at the hands of Rimsky-Korsakov, Janáček has suffered from attempts to “tidy up” his orchestration. This was particularly so in the case of his opera, The Cunning Little Vixen. The German premiere had not been an enormous success, but general consensus was that there was some fine music in the orchestral interludes. So, after Janáček’s death in 1928, his publisher Universal Edition asked conductor Vaclav Talich to explore the idea of an orchestral suite. However, Talich was of the opinion that Janáček’s orchestration could do with a bit of sprucing up, and so he oversaw the re-orchestration of the music.

It was only with conductor Charles Mackerras’s later championing of Janáček’s music that this attempt at “improving” Janáček was reversed: not only did Mackerras restore the original orchestration, he also extended the suite by including some more music from the end of the opera's prelude. It is this version that is heard here. The opera is a delightful woodland tale concerning the fate of a vixen who is captured by a Forester, and there are parts for several animals including frogs, badgers, owls, and so on. You can imagine how this would have inspired Janáček, and indeed the opening of the opera (and this suite) conjures up marvellously the image of a forest teeming with life. The Bergen strings shimmer and sparkle, and the conclusion of the suite is nothing short of radiant.

So, three great performances of three fine works. I’ve played this many times over the weekend, and have yet to tire of Janáček’s imaginative orchestration, or the virtuosity that the Bergen players bring to every bar. I look forward to further volumes in the series!

Janáček: Orchestral Works, Vol. 1

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano), Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Edward Gardner

Available Formats: SACD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC