JANÁCEK: Jenufa -- Suite. The Excursions of Mr. Broucek -- Suite.
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra/Peter Breiner
Naxos 8.570555 (B) (DDD) TT: 70:20.

JANÁCEK: Kát'a Kabanová -- Suite. The Makropulos Affair -- Suite.
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra/Peter Breiner
Naxos 8.570556 (B) (DDD) TT: 70:31

Nice. First, Janácek did not make suites from his operas. Peter Breiner arranged these suites. Some of the items he lifted pretty much whole. Others he hunted and snipped and pasted. I've got nothing against such procedures per se. After all, it's done with movie soundtrack albums all the time. However, I really have to wonder why Breiner did it. Whom did he serve?

At one point the answer would have been Janácek himself. The operas weren't all that well known beyond Czechoslovakia, after all, and such suites might well have introduced many to the music, thus leading to performances and recordings. However, all the operas here have received already recordings (still currently available) and a couple have actually made standard rep. Broucek and Makropulos, I believe, have even been done at the Met, that most hidebound of houses. Consequently, you might think that these suites now introduce the music-lover to the operas. Listeners can dip into the music and decide whether they want to go further.

However, Breiner's suites give you very little idea of the power of the operas. At most, I can say that they're well-fashioned and make for a pleasant listening experience. But, to take one example, Kát'a Kabanová is not a pleasant opera, and you miss the tragedy in Breiner's suite. Breiner fails to catch the eccentricity of Broucek, and I don't see how he could have done so. Janácek's operas depend on text and singing actors as well as the music to make anything near their full effect. So I'd take the plunge and buy a complete opera instead. The Cunning Little Vixen introduced me to Janácek's operas and hooked me, so that I wanted to hear as much as I could. And, by the way, get the operas sung in Czech, rather than in German or in English. You will probably understand nothing without a gloss in front of you, but in general, singing translations notoriously suck and diminish the poetry of the text.

Other than those caveats, these CDs comprise an afternoon of agreeable listening. Breiner and his kiwis do very well. I've never really listened to the New Zealand Symphony before, mainly because their repertoire interested me to the exclusion of their performances. Now that they play something that interests me less, I can focus on them: a lovely string sound and capable of sustaining large spans of music. I can't tell how much Breiner has contributed to this, but obviously the capability lies within the players. The sound is acceptable without crossing over into the super-spectacular.

(December 2009)