JANACEK: Danube (Symphonic Poem)*. Incidental Music to Schluck und Jau. Moravian Dances. Suite, op. 3. Jana Valásková (soprano)*, Zdenek Husek (viola)*, Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra/Libor Pesek.
Naxos 8.555245  (B) (originally Marco Polo 8.220362) {DDD} TT: 48:55

Janacek early, Janacek late. Although Janacek had formal musical training, it was mainly as a music teacher. He mostly had to teach himself how to compose. He begins, naturally enough, by imitating composers he admires—mainly Smetana and Dvorák. The Moravian Dances differ very little in intent from Smetana's dances for The Bartered Bride or from Dvorak's Slavonic Dances. One sees little borrowings from both sources here and there in Janacek's orchestration. The Moravian Dances, however, remain a good knock-off, with less structural and instrumental elegance than that of their predecessors.

The Suite, op. 3, shows greater formal ambition than the Dances, as well as greater dramatic punch, perhaps due to the fact that Janacek used some themes from his incomplete opera, The Beginning of a Romance. One also notes a stronger Slavic, almost Rimskian, tinge to this music, particularly in the slow movement, as opposed to the still rather Germanic Moravian Dances. Still, the idiom isn't what we normally associate with the composer. While I admit the attractions of the Suite, the later works of Janacek, roughly from Jenufa on, excite me far more. The two late scores -- Danube and the incidental music to Schluck und Jau—typify the strongly individual (if not downright eccentric) workings of the composer's mind. The symphonic poem Danube, in spite of its title, portrays not the river, but conflates two stories about women who killed themselves by drowning. I confess I don't follow the narrative through the music, perhaps because I don't know the stories in detail, but it makes little difference to me. The music itself grabs my interest from first to last. The opening bars establish Janacek right away—astringent harmonies miles away from Dvorak, little motifs obsessively worried over. I also hear an expansive lyric quality I associate with late Martinu, years before the fact. One of the composer's most original strokes comes in the lively third movement: an extended vocalise for soprano and a solo viola. Apparently, it represents the gaiety of Vienna. To my ear, it resembles passages in The Cunning Little Vixen that portray the vitality of nature. Incidentally, this recording marks a premiere of sorts. Danube was unperformed in Janacek's lifetime. Indeed, Janacek probably intended a fifth movement. When one heard Danube at all (and before this CD, I never had), apparently it was in the edition of Janacek's pupil, Osvald Chlubna. Three Janacek scholars have gone back to the original manuscript and, according to the notes, made minimal "adjustments."

Janacek was asked to provide incidental music to a Berlin production of Gerhardt Hauptmann's Shakespearian comedy Schluck und Jau. The composer was less than thrilled with the play and got as far as four numbers of what was to have been an elaborate score. Eventually, the production went ahead with music by Smetana. Two of Janacek's numbers were apparently too fragmentary to be included in an orchestral suite, put together by the same trio of scholars who worked on Danube. They have come up with a glimpse into what would have been a knockout score. The first movement, probably intended as an introduction, is at the level of the Sinfonietta, as good as Janacek wrote. I'd argue the same for the second movement. Terrific stuff, which makes this CD, especially at its Naxos price, well worth buying.

Pesek leads rhythmically exciting performances. Indeed, I've yet to hear a bad reading from this conductor, and I've been lucky enough to attend several superb concerts with him on the podium. However, I find the tone of the Slovak Philharmonic strings rather thin and the recording over-bright, which exacerbates the first problem.

S.G.S. (July 2002)