Leoš Janáček

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Peter Breiner


Peter Breiner, music director of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, has done us a service in arranging and recording a series of suites from the operas of Czech composer Leoš Janáček (1854-1928), with the object of making some of the composer’s most vibrant music accessible to a wider public outside the opera house. To judge from what I hear in these suites from Jenufa and The Excursions of Mr. Broucek, Breiner has succeeded admirably as both arranger and conductor. (Even as we speak, a second volume of Janáček suites, consisting of Katya Kabanova and The Makropoulos Affair, has been released by Naxos.)

Janáček has been called “the first minimalist composer,” but the analogy is misleading. Much of the effectiveness of his writing is due to his assimilation of the natural pitch, rhythm, and inflections of the Czech language. From this study, he derived what he called “speech tunes.”  These he applied as as short, repeated motifs to build his unique dramatic style. The repetition of these motifs has a powerful cumulative effect. It is, however, quite different from the way repetition is often used by our present-day Minimalists, which to my mind can be quite boring compared with the result Janáček achieved.

In terms of his orchestrations, on the other hand, you’d have to consider Janáček a “Maximalist,” if there is such a word (if not, coin it at once!) His scores are continuously busy, involving every family of the orchestra. Symphonic players must really love Janáček. No matter what your instrument, he doesn’t keep you sawing away in the background on some boring accompaniment for long; sooner or later, you will have your moment in the sun. In particular, his distinctive writing for the brass is highly imaginative and is often used for expressive purposes. In Jenufa, a dark, troubled tale of passion and jealousy in which, among other things, the heroine’s love child is drowned in a mill race by her envious stepmother, the sounds of the brass are often blurred as in a miasma, psychologically reflecting the internal turmoil of the characters. The mill itself is characterized by the ceaseless tapping of the xylophone, to be replaced later by the smoother, undulating sound of the harp, when the sinister crisis has been resolved and Jenufa has at last found happiness.

The Excursions of Mr. Broucek is an opera in a different mood, based on a fictional Czech hero who rivals Baron Münchhausen as a shameless liar. As befits a drunken hero who lives in a wine vat and is at one point sentenced to die in a beer barrel, the music associated with Broucek is highly colored. In the opening movement of the suite, our hero’s name, Mataj Broucek, is blared out for us by the horns and trumpets. When one of his imaginary “excursions” takes him to the moon, we hear mystic strings and harp glissandi. In the last excursion, when Broucek finds himself in 15 th century Prague, the savior of his country against the onslaughts of the Austrian Emperor, the scoring becomes more robust as Janáček invokes the same Hussite chorale that Smetana had previously used in Ma Vlast (My Homeland), and for much the same nationalistic purpose.

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