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26 Jul 2014

Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass, BBC Proms

Composed during just a few weeks of the summer of 1926, Janáček’s Slavonic-text Glagolitic Mass was first performed in Brno in December 1927.

Leos Janáček : Glagolitic Mass, Brahms : Piano Concerto no 1, BBC Prom 9 Royal Albert Hall, London, 24th July 2014

A review by Claire Seymour


During the rehearsals for the premiere - just 3 for the orchestra and one 3-hour rehearsal for the whole ensemble - the composer made many changes, and such alterations continued so that by the time of the only other performance during Janáček’s lifetime, in Prague in April 1928, many of the instrumental (especially brass) lines had been doubled, complex rhythmic patterns had been ‘ironed-out’ (the Kyrie was originally in 5/4 time), a passage for 3 off-stage clarinets had been cut along with music for 3 sets of pedal timpani, and choral passages were also excised.

Were these changes a result of practical expediency? Too few rehearsals to work out solutions to performance problems; sopranos who could not sustain the high Bbs in the original ending to the Sanctus; instrumental players who found the unconventional, asymmetrical cross rhythms unfathomable in the Kyrie? Too few bars, perhaps, for the clarinettists to get off stage! Or, do they reflect Janáček’s revised, and final, musical judgement? For example, the composer added brass to the ending of the Sinfonietta for the reason that it was not possible to create the necessary climaxes without additional forces, and the same decision may have been taken in the case of the Mass.

Pre-occupied immediately afterwards with the composition of From the House of the Dead, Janáček reputedly declared that he was not inclined to concern himself with the score of the Glagolitic Mass. So, are the difficulties of the original performances still problems today? And, which version of the work best represents the composer’s intentions?

There are no unequivocal answers to these questions, but at the Royal Albert Hall we were offered the opportunity to hear the ‘raw’ Glagolitic Mass - startlingly imaginative, defiantly rhetorical, unquestionably ‘modern’ - when a reconstruction of the original 1926 score by Janáček scholar Paul Wingfield was performed by the London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra under the baton of Valery Gergiev.

This was certainly a rousing rendition, as Gergiev drew energised, committed playing and singing from the forces massed before him, and created expectancy and excitement from the alternations of brass, chorus and vocal soloists. The fanfares of the Intrada were vibrant and invigorating, while in the instrumental Uvod Gergiev allowed air between the varied instrumental voices.

The entry of the chorus in the Kyrie (Gospodi pomiluj) had the quiet simplicity of an unaffected prayer and this mood of sincere devotion was given added fervour by the entry of soprano Mlada Khudoley whose breath-taking power and projection did not in any way diminish the sumptuous beauty of her soaring lines. In common with all the soloists, Khudoley genuinely and fully appreciated the composer’s unique ‘operatic’ idiom.

In the Gloria (Slava) the chorus reached ecstatic heights, while the long Credo (Věruju) allowed Gergiev to find a diversity of moods and colours: the vocal solos and choral interjections were impassioned - tenor Mikhail Vekua’s proclamations shook the RAH rafters - but there was also some consoling sweetness during the gentle orchestral interlude. The Agnus Dei (Agneče Božij) was dark of hue, a moment of deep reflection before Thomas Trotter’s invigorated organ solo in which flamboyant technical proficiency was blended with a sense of the composer’s vehemence and zeal.

Janáček wrote: ‘I hear in the tenor solo a kind of high priest, in the soprano solo a maiden angel, in the chorus our people. The candles are high fir trees in the wood, lit up by stars; and somewhere in the ritual see a vision of the princely St Wenceslas. And the language is that of the missionaries Cyril and Methodius.’ Gergiev and the LSO and Chorus were true to this pantheistic spirit.

Barry Douglas first came to prominence in 1986 when he won the Tchaikovsky Competition. Currently mid-way through a monumental project to record the complete works for solo piano of both Brahms and Schubert, in the first half of the programme Douglas performed Brahms’s First Piano Concerto - and there was something of the introspection of the solo piano music about Douglas’s first entry, which was resigned and consciously removed from the orchestral tumult. This deliberation, focus and intense concentration contrasted markedly with the forthright vigour and rhetoric that Gergiev encouraged from the LSO in the dramatic orchestral opening passage.

Perhaps it was just where I was seated, or maybe the RAH acoustic is not suited to the symphonic blend of soloist and orchestra which Brahms crafts, but I found the LSO’s playing disappointingly heavy, the rhythms lacking bite, the textures dense, especially in the third movement Rondo. Conducting without a baton, Gergiev fluttered his hands and fingers incessantly but there was little that flickered lightly in the orchestral sound that these twitchings brought forth.

That’s not to say that there was not some fine instrumental playing. In the second movement, the clarinets and oboes played with poetry and pathos, and the demanding writing for horns and timpani was executed with great accomplishment throughout. But, I found myself focusing on Douglas’s solo voice: the warmth of the hymn-like chordal second subject in the first movement was wonderfully soothing and throughout Douglas’s virtuosity was wonderfully integrated within the eloquent communication of the spirit of Brahms’ music.

Claire Seymour

All BBC Proms can be heard online, internationally for 30 days after broadcast

Cast and production information:

Barry Douglas, piano. Mlada Khudoley, soprano; Yulia Mattochkina, mezzo soprano; Mikhail Vekua, tenor; Yuri Vorobiev, bass; Thomas Trotter, organ; Valery Gergiev, conductor; London Symphony Orchestra, London Symphony Chorus.

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