PROM 9: The Original Version of Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass at the Proms

United KingdomUnited Kingdom PROM 9 Brahms,  Janáček: Barry Douglas (piano), Mlada Khudoley (soprano), Yulia Matochkina (mezzo-soprano), Mikhail Vekua (tenor), Yuri Vorobiev (bass), Thomas Trotter (organ), London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Valery Gergiev (conductor) Royal Albert Hall, London, 24.7.2014 (RB)

Brahms – Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor Op 15
Janáček – Glagolitic Mass (Original 1926 version, reconstructed by Paul Wingfield)

 Barry Douglas recently embarked on a project to record the complete piano works of Brahms and he has released two widely acclaimed recordings to date (review ~ review) .  As part of the project he intends to record both piano concertos, so this Prom provided an opportunity for the Northern Irish pianist to showcase his interpretation of the D Minor concerto, a work he has recorded before.  In the second half, Gergiev and the LSO were joined by four soloists from the Mariinsky Theatre and the superb Thomas Trotter on the organ for Janáček’s original, more radical, version of the Glagolitic Mass.

There were a smaller number of orchestral players on stage than I was expecting for the Brahms so I assume Gergiev and Douglas decided to work with a reduced group of LSO players rather than the full orchestra.  It was a good call as it meant that Douglas was able to project and bring out the lyricism of the piano writing without having to battle against huge orchestral forces.  The first movement is marked Maestoso (not Allegro maestoso as many people seem to think) and in the past performers have adopted a wide range of tempi.  Douglas and Gergiev adopted a slow tempo which enabled them to bring weight and gravitas to the score but did not entirely work for me as I felt it detracted from the dramatic power and emotional turbulence of the movement.  Notwithstanding this, there were many positive features to this performance.  The LSO captured the baleful turmoil and blackness of the opening orchestral tutti.  Douglas’ playing was intensely lyrical and limpid and his handling of the dense textures was particularly good, allowing Brahms’ rich harmonic language to shine through (it reminded me a little of Radu Lupu’s Brahms playing).  The power was also there when required, for example, in the first double octave passage which was a barnstorming piece of playing.  In the coda both soloist and orchestra seemed to hold back a little, focusing on the shape and contours of the piece – this was in keeping with the choice of tempo and overall conception of the work but again I would have preferred them to have taken a more uninhibited and fiery approach.

Soloist and orchestra adopted a nice flowing tempo for the Adagio which Douglas seemed to treat as a profoundly moving love song:  the tone was gorgeous and the sound projection excellent.  There was sterling support from the LSO’s woodwind and the build up to the famous succession of trills at the end was executed beautifully.  The opening of the finale had considerable rhythmic impetus while the second subject had a rhapsodic quality which seemed reminiscent of some of the composer’s solo piano works.  The final cadential flourishes were rock solid before soloist and orchestra drove the piece to an exhilarating conclusion.

The leading Janáček scholar, Paul Wingfield, was able to reconstruct the earlier, more radical, version of the Glagolitic Mass which featured in this Prom by drawing on manuscripts and other sources from the composer’s home town of Brno.  It shows the wildness and originality of Janáček’s initial conception and highlights his rhythmic innovations which are very much in the mould of Stravinsky or Varèse.  The work uses an obscure Slavonic text of the Mass (the so called Glagolitic script) rather than the traditional Latin Mass.  The soloists were seated behind the orchestra and in front of the chorus.  Gergiev and the LSO got the work off to an upbeat start with the opening Intrada which was fizzing with energy while its asymmetrical rhythms in strings, brass and timpani seemed to bring out the underlying primitivism.  More polyrhythms followed in the second movement which was again purely orchestral.  Soprano Mlada Khudoley joined the London Symphony Chorus in the opening Kyrie and they did an excellent job in synthesising the devotional and more rugged, earthbound aspects of the work (Janáček made clear to his critics that he was not a believer).  Khudoley has a powerful, ringing voice and she was able to project well although there was a little too much vibrato in the opening Kyrie.  Khudoley took the lead again the Gloria and she conveyed well the joyous, uplifting feeling at the beginning of the movement.  Mikhail Vekua gave us some powerful dramatic pleading in the next section and there were some well coordinated antiphonal sound effects in the choir.  The London Symphony Chorus made the insistent Amins ring out in a compelling way.

The Credo is the longest movement in the Glagolitic Mass and it allowed both the LSO and Thomas Trotter on the organ to take centre stage.  The woodwind and cellos sounded a plaintive and meditative note before orchestra and organist worked the music up to a powerful climax against an extraordinary rhythmic undertow.  There was a captivating and luminous harmonic glow at the beginning of the Sanctus and the LSO’s leader is to be congratulated on his solo.  The insistent string ostinato was well controlled by Gergiev and well executed by the LSO.  The penultimate movement is a virtuoso organ piece and it allowed Thomas Trotter to give the Albert Hall’s organ a workout:  he made optimum use of the stop combinations and registers to produce highly coloured sonorities while Janáček’s complex rhythms sounded edgy and virile.  The final movement took us back to the rhythmic energy of the opening to end the work in upbeat fashion.

Overall, there was a lot of great playing at this Prom and Gergiev and his team are to be congratulated for championing the Wingfield version of the Glagolitic Mass – I hope it continues to gain wider currency in the concert hall.

Robert Beattie






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