Two life-affirming works from Leoš Janáček’s prodigious final years are performed by the Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg under Marko Letonja, its Music Director from 2012 to 2021: the Glagolitic Mass, both monumental and exuberant, and the colourful, multi-faceted Sinfonietta.
The soloists in the Glagolitic Mass are Swedish soprano Malin Byström, British mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnston and two Czech singers: tenor Ladislav Elgr, and baritone Adam Plachetka. The prominent organ part is played by Johann Vexo (who holds appointments at Notre-Dame in Paris and in Nancy) and the choral contribution comes from the Czech Philharmonic Choir of Brno, the city where Janáček made his home and which he evokes in the Sinfonietta.
The Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg is one of France’s leading orchestras. In recent years it has participated in such Warner Classics projects as the award-winning recording of Berlioz’s epic opera Les Troyens, conducted by John Nelson, and, with Marko Letonja on the podium, tenor Michael Spyres’ free-ranging recital BariTenor. The Slovenian-born conductor also took charge of two programmes recorded in Strasbourg in Dolby Atmos immersive spatial audio and released on digital platforms in Autumn 2021: Spatial Audio - The 3D Orchestral Collection and Spatial Audio - The 3D Film Music Collection.
Janáček completed the Glagolitic Mass in 1927, the year he turned 73. Though religiously agnostic, he said that: “My Mass will be entirely different from all the rest. I will show people how to talk to God". The success in 1916 of his third opera, Jenůfa, had triggered a phase of phenomenal creativity, and in the last 10 years of his life Janáček composed further four major operas and a number of other important works. He died in 1928.
The text of the Glagolitic Mass is in Old Church Slavonic, the ancient liturgical language of the composer’s native Moravia. The term ‘Glagolitic’ refers to the ornate script originally used to write Old Church Slavonic. There were only two performances of the work in Janáček’s lifetime. At the time of its premiere in Brno in late 1927, the composer was preoccupied with writing his final opera Z mrtvého domu (From the House of the Dead) and did not attend all the rehearsals for the Mass. In his absence his deputies made a number of expedient simplifications and adaptations to the complex and innovative score. These changes found their way into the version of the Mass which, published in 1929, became the ‘standard’ edition. This recording, however, uses a much more recent critical edition – prepared by the Czech musicologist Jirí Zahrádka and published in 2011 – which has been described as truer to Janáček’s passionate spirit and his adventurous vision of the Glagolitic Mass.
The atmospheric five-moment Sinfonietta, completed in 1926, is one of Janáček most popular works. It opens unforgettably with a fanfare for nine trumpets, two tenor tubas, two bass trumpets and timpani that returns in the finale, accompanied by the rest of the orchestra in a triumphant peroration.
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