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ClassicsOnline Home » JANACEK, L.: Operatic Orchestral Suites, Vol. 1 (arr. P. Breiner) - Jenufa / The Excursions of Mr Broucek
The operas of Leoš Janáček have been gaining their rightful place in major opera houses the world over. First staged in 1904, Jenůfa, a powerful tragedy set in a Moravian village, launched Janáček’s operatic career. The Excursions of Mr Brouček, which had its première in 1920, is his most candidly satirical opera, rich in high jinks as the bumptious Prague publican travels to the Moon and back to the 15th century. Peter Breiner, who created the compelling orchestral suites heard on this disc, conducts these world première recordings.
By Steve Schwartz
By David Denton
Though most of Leoš Janáček’s operas are now firmly embedded in the repertoire of the world’s opera houses, anything that brings them further exposure to those unfamiliar with such great masterpieces is most welcome. Towards the end of his life they had gained acceptance in Prague, but he had lived much of his compositional career unable to hear the highly distinctive sounds he was creating and which were his unique possession. Having spent a lifetime travelling wherever his operas were performed, I have to be regarded as biased, but he is surely among the most remarkable composers of the 20th century. In the last 30 years have performances of his works have become more common, the exception being the comic opera, The Excursions of Mr. Brouček, Janáček’s use of words to create music being lost when translated, yet without it the audience fails to understand the comedy. Jeůufa, with its story of the ignominy that a child born out of wedlock brings in a close-knit village is both dramatic and deeply moving, and remains his masterpiece. In making his suite Peter Breiner switches backwards and forwards to create an interesting concert hall experience and uses orchestral passages to avoids the need to recast the vocal line on instruments. He had a much more difficult job with Brouček as the vocal line and story is all important and the opera depends on the summation of those parts. The New Zealand Symphony—New Zealand Opera having recently staged Jenůfa—plays with impact, brilliance and a nice feel for the Janáček sound, Peter Breiner’s conducting is generally in line with the tempos you would hear in the opera house. High impact, highly detailed sound.
Leoš Janáček (1854–1928)
Orchestral Suites from the Operas • 1
Leoš Janáček has recently become a staple of the operatic repertoire. But if one were to have asked Janáček himself about his work while he was writing his fifth opera, The Excursions of Mr Brouček, he would have said his career was in tatters. His first opera Šárka could not be performed, as the composer had failed correctly to acquire the rights in its libretto. The Beginning of a Romance is a charming but vapid precursor to his 1904 tragic masterpiece Jenůfa, however Janáček had great problems convincing his contemporaries in the opera houses of Vienna and Prague that even Jenůfa was worthy of performance. Despondent, Janáček wrote Osud, an experimental and autobiographical work, yet this too failed and in a further slough of despond he began his comic opera Brouček. It would be astonishing for the composer to learn today that Jenůfa is a regular repertoire piece and that Brouček is quite widely performed. More surprising still would be the news that Peter Breiner deemed both operas worthy of transplanting into these new orchestral suites. This first volume in the series offers a superb insight into two relatively early works in Janáček’s operatic career and with which he was repeatedly rejected by the powers that be outside his adopted hometown of Brno.
When Jenůfa had its première in Brno in 1904, Janáček was already fifty. His slim output was unknown, but the composer was already highly regarded in Brno as a talented conductor, critic, teacher and ethnomusicologist. In 1881 he founded a college of organists there, which he directed until 1920, and established a strong foundation for musical education with an orchestra and instrumental classes. In 1884 the Provisional Czech Theatre opened and Janáček started a musicological journal in which he reviewed the theatre’s modest repertoire of performances. Inspired or at least spurred by what he saw and heard, he began to write his own stage works. Despite initial false starts, Jenůfa was a major achievement. The startling play by Gabriela Preissová that he chose as the inspiration for the opera follows the unfortunate life of Jenůfa, a village girl who lives with her stepmother, called the Kostelnička. Jenůfa is pregnant with her cousin Števa’s child and is fearful that he will be conscripted into the army and her pregnancy will be discovered. The Kostelnička hides Jenůfa away and begs Števa to look after Jenůfa, but he is spineless and shirks his responsibility. Števa’s half-brother Laca remains their only hope and rashly Kostelnička tells Laca that the baby has died. She acts quickly and drowns the baby in the millstream, telling Jenůfa that the baby passed away when she was unwell. It is only on Laca and Jenůfa’s wedding day that the truth finally comes out and Kostelnička is taken away for trial. Laca promises to look after Jenůfa and, despite everything, she realises that God has smiled on them.
Janáček matches this desperate tale with a wildly emotional score. Calling on Moravian folk-music and an imitation of the rhythms of Czech speech, Janáček’s soundworld is rough-hewn and beautiful. Peter Breiner’s orchestral suite charts the entire span of the opera, starting with the evocative sound of the mill, indicated by the tapping of a xylophone. We realise, through the shifting harmonies, that all is not well. The second movement, a riotous dance, is taken from the scene in which Jenůfa’s beloved Števa returns celebrating his avoidance of conscription. It represents one of the few moments of happiness in the opera, but that joy is not unbridled, and the suite moves seamlessly into music taken from the wise words of Jenůfa’s grandmother (endorsed by the whole community) that every couple have their own problems. The third movement brings us to the preparations for Laca and Jenůfa’s wedding, although the ominous rumbling from the opening of the suite returns and, as if in flashback, we move to the introduction to the second act when Kostelnička commits her crime, a trick that the highly cinematic Janáček would have relished. Again in flashback we return to Števa’s drunken antics and the song ‘Daleko široko’ with slurring brass mimicking his behaviour, preceded by a plangent violin solo, heavy with Jenůfa’s predicament. The next movement returns us to Laca and Jenůfa’s wedding with a jolly bridesmaids’ song, moving to Grandmother’s blessing. The contentment is short-lived and the events of the previous two acts reach their zenith in the adumbration of the discovery of Jenůfa’s baby in the millstream and the villagers subsequently turning on the Buryja family. The last movement charts Laca and Jenůfa’s final moments, facing the challenge of their future life. It sees Janáček at his most lyrical, the belligerent mill tapping now calmed to the ululating harp with long-spun melodies high in the texture in a numinous coda.
The Excursions of Mr Brouček finds Janáček in a very different mood, with a comic story of a drunken landlord. This satirical view of the Czech Everyman was the creation of the nationalist writer Svatopluk č ech. Janáček read Výlet pana Broučka do Měsíce (The Excursion of Mr Brouček to the Moon) when it was first published in 1888 and the composer later reprinted part of the story in his musical journal. After the disappointment of Jenůfa, and his floundering opera Osud, Janáček sought to change his dramatic approach and cast his mind back to Matěj Brouček. He is a drunk, bumbling figure who somehow finds himself transported to the Moon—a place dominated by pretentious artistic types. Subsequently he is taken back to the fifteenth century, where he becomes embroiled in nationalistic wars. Over the course of this esoteric opera, Brouček reveals himself as nothing but an oaf and a coward.
The suite, largely comprised of sections from the first ‘excursion’ to the Moon, is introduced by the musical depiction of Matěj Brouček’s name, spelled out clearly by the horns and trumpets. We first meet our eponymous lout on a peaceful moon-filled evening in Prague, with lush strings in counterpoint with the dogmatic punctuation of the woodwind. Brouček is staggering home and overhears the lovers Málinka and Mazal; their characters are clearly discernible through the orchestral textures. Life on earth is too much for Brouček and he decides to journey to the moon, depicted in the second movement’s spectral opening bars. Disappointment greets Brouček, however, who is horrified to discover that, despite the many beauties of the Moon, it is populated by the artistic and intellectual avant-garde. The third movement sees Janáček testing his orchestral dexterity with a series of moon dances, which take place in the Lunar Palace of Arts. Like the moon characters themselves, who strongly resemble some of Brouček’s acquaintances back home, the dances are thoroughly imbued with Czech spirit. Earth is more Brouček’s kind of place and he returns whence he came, eventually carried home by his neighbours in a barrel.
The final movement draws its inspiration from the music of the fifteenth-century ‘excursion’ which, despite Brouček’s presence, is a much more serious affair. Fifteenth-century Prague is under siege from the armies of the Holy Roman Empire and Brouček is drawn into the mire. The heraldic brass start a triumphant ‘dance’ of victory as the Czech national fighters suppress outside forces. The people celebrate victory with a hymn (based on the Hussite Chorale ‘Kdož jsou Boží bojovníci’, which also appears in Smetana’s Má vlast), but there have been deaths and their effect is sobering. Brouček is discovered in hiding and accused of treachery. Rather appropriately, he is sentenced to death, again in a beer barrel. Although the opera ends with Brouček claiming that he saved Prague ‘singlehanded’, the Suite ends in a glorious encapsulation of the true victory music, rounding off this depiction of Janáček’s capricious but beautiful nationalist opera. Those heraldic tones would have had singular resonance for the new nation of Czechoslovakia in which The Excursions of Mr Brouček had its première in April 1920. By that time too, his peers finally regarded Janáček as a great composer.
© Gavin Plumley, 2008
Gavin Plumley has written, broadcast and lectured widely about the life and works of Janáček and created www.leosjanacek.com
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