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Recordings

Leoš Janáček: Káťa Kabanová
24 Jan 2007

JANACEK: Káťa Kabanová

I saw my first Káťa 37 years ago during the Flanders Festival. At the time it was still an almost complete novelty on the scene and the Czech company performed it according to the composer’s intentions.

Leoš Janáček: Káťa Kabanová

Elisabeth Söderström (Káťa), Petr Dvorsky (Boris), Nedezda Kniplova (Kabanischa), Vladimir Krejcik (Tichon), Libuse Marova (Varvara), Dalibor Jedlicka ((Dikoj), Wiener Staatsopernchor and Wiener Philharmoniker conducted by Charles Mackerras.

Decca 475 7518 [2CDs]

$22.98  Click to buy

Since then, it is gradually on its way to becoming a repertory piece mainly due to directors vying with each other for trying their hands and ideas on a piece which lends itself to many an interpretation. My last Káťa was at the Brussels Munt and was played without a pause as if the lady falls in love, deceives her husband and commits suicide in the blink of an eye. Janacek wouldn’t have loved it as the last act takes place two weeks after the second one. The director had the brilliant idea of placing the piece in one of these dreary Russian “kommunalka’s” (common apartments) in the early 1960s. These were, and probably still are, places where gossip is rife and can be deadly indeed. Still, there is the small problem of the horse sleighs arriving and leaving, so magically invoked by Janacek’s orchestra and they were passed over as being contrary to the director’s concept. And in the midst of Chroestjov’s anti-religion campaign, I severely doubt the whole Kommunalka would enthusiastically have sung the praise of Easter and Orthodoxy.

Those ‘small’ problems don’t exist on record and therefore the listener can use his or her own fantasy if need be as everything is in the nervous short melodies so typical for the composer. This recording was issued in the Decca “Classic series” and rarely this definition will have been so right on the mark. Thirty years after its appearance on the market it is still unsurpassed though honesty obliges me to say that competition is small, which proves that the record buying public is not too fond of the score shorn from its strong theatrical impact. Only five complete performances exist; probably because the opera on record indeed has less striking musical themes than present in Jenufa. The first 1959 Czech version is a poor affair as to sound and singers, notwithstanding the fact that it was an all-Czech cast. In 1977 came the issue under review. Twenty years after this classic recording the same conductor once more led a new version but for Benackova the title role came rather late in her career. The latest version in the vernacular, conducted by Cambreling, has Denoke and Kuebler in the title roles at the Salzburg Festival in 2001. I never heard the set because reviews were not very enthusiastic, deploring Denoke’s harsh sound as Káťa and Kuebler’s dry tone as Boris. Those two singers were the principals in my Brussels performance as well and I indeed got away with the impression they were good actors and very mediocre singers.

Several DVD’s prove that Elisabeth Söderström who sings the title role in this issue knew how to act convincingly but with her there is the voice as well and what a beautiful voice it is on these CD’s: very feminine, rich, sensual and ringing during emotional climaxes. The silvery sound of her early years is still there but the strength is there too and as this was the first recording in her Janacek-cycle the voice is still fresh at 49-years of age. Striking is her enunciation. Even when one doesn’t speak or understand Czech like myself, one can still compare her interpretation with her Czech colleagues and I for one don’t hear a difference in pronunciation or emphasis on syllables. In those years rumors started to go around that there was a new good lyric tenor behind the iron curtain. Dvorsky made his West-European début as the Italian tenor at the Vienna opera in the same year he recorded this set and imaginative casting this is; going for a young promising unknown. I’ve never known him singing better with that unforced beauty that some of the old hands at the Met maybe remember from his two Traviata performances in 1977. Too soon his voice would thicken so that by the time he became a regular there was not much to enjoy anymore.

Kniplova was a very successful Kabanicha at the Prague opera but as this is a recording and not a DVD the aural impression is important. Some fans will probably argue that the sour sound corresponds with the mentality of Kata’s mother-in-law but I have doubts. The many Aidas, Brünnhildes and Leonores had taken their toll. As the husband Vladimir Krejcik is very convincing. But so are all small-bit players with a special mention for Zdenek Svhela in the important role of chemistry professor. I have rarely heard a more impressive performance by an almost voiceless comprimario tenor. Nevertheless the voice fits the role to a T.

Charles Mackerras immediately jumped to the forefront of Janacek conductors with this subtle and inspired reading, slowly building the tension so that one already feels the inevitable end during the intermezzi. Of course he has at his disposal the Vienna Philharmonic and he profits from their honeyed sound while at the same time always and scrupulously supporting his singers; never using this magnificent orchestra to overwhelm them. And he has a producer and recording engineer who cooperate and don’t bury the singers in orchestral sound as happens in the second Mackerras-Benackova recording of 1997.

I don’t know the 1989 re-issue of this classic set but I’m often cross at the ways labels just throw their older recordings on the market, more often than not skipping the original interesting essays that accompanied the LP versions. I’m glad that for once the very readable article by John Tyrell plus Mackerras’ personal views are printed and they should surely be read before playing the CD’s. If I remember well the set got the Gramophone’s Record of the Year award at its first appearance. It remains the set by which all new efforts will be measured.

Jan Neckers

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