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The Classical Reviewer, April 2012

JANÁČEK, L.: Operatic Orchestral Suites, Vol. 1 (arr. P. Breiner) - Jenufa / The Excursions of Mr Broucek 8.570555
JANÁČEK, L.: Operatic Orchestral Suites, Vol. 2 (arr. P. Breiner) - Kat’a Kabanova / The Makropulos Affair 8.570556
JANÁČEK, L.: Operatic Orchestral Suites, Vol. 3 (arr. P. Breiner) - The Cunning Little Vixen / From the House of the Dead 8.570706

There is absolutely no indication that Janáček wanted anyone to make orchestral arrangements of his operas and, indeed, I think that he probably wouldn’t be very happy about it. However, Peter Breiner has done just this with suites from six of Janáček’s operas, Jenufa, The Excursions of Mr Broucek, Kata Kabanova, The Makropulos Affair, the Cunning Little Vixen and From the House of the Dead.

These suites, lasting from thirty one minutes to thirty nine minutes, can in no way give a true reflection of the complete operas but what they do give is the opportunity to listen to some very striking and beautiful music.

Some commentators have questioned the point of these arrangements and I can see why they do. To experience the full range of Janáček’s operatic works there can be no substitute for listening to the operas in full. However, the three CD’s issued by Naxos, beautifully played by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Peter Breiner himself, do give much pleasure. © 2012 The Classical Reviewer

Tim Smith
The Baltimore Sun, December 2009

VIVALDI, A.: 4 Seasons (The) / Mandolin Concerto, RV 425 / Lute Concerto, RV 93 (arr. for piano) (Biegel) 8.570031
JANACEK, L.: Operatic Orchestral Suites, Vol. 1 (arr. P. Breiner) - Jenůfa / The Excursions of Mr Broucek 8.570555
JANACEK, L.: Operatic Orchestral Suites, Vol. 2 (arr. P. Breiner) - Kat’a Kabanova / The Makropulos Affair 8.570556
STRAUSS, R.: Rosenkavalier (Der) Suite / Symphonic Fantasy on Die Frau ohne Schatten / Symphonic Fragment from Josephs Legende (Falletta) 8.572041

As I mentioned in my first post of gift suggestions (for those on your shopping list, or for yourself when all those gift cards come in), I ended up limiting myself to opera, orchestral and piano. Here are my picks from the last two categories:


Two of the most enjoyable keyboard CDs I heard this year both feature pianist Jeffrey Biegel, and both are ever so slightly (and delectably) out of the mainstream.

Even if you’ve got a zillion recordings of the Mozart piano sonatas, you’re not likely to have any that include embellishments of the repeats. In the three-disc Volume 1 of his survey of the sonatas for the E1 Music label, Biegel argues that, given Mozart’s famed improvisational skills, there’s room for improve today when sections of a sonata movement get repeated. Doesn’t seem at all far-fetched to me. Then again, I’m in favor of embellishing repeated sections in Mozart arias, a practice that relatively few singers dare to try. And I think even the repeats in symphonies—not just by Mozart—could stand a little variety, Maybe not actual changes or additions to the notes, but at least variances in dynamics and emphasis. Ah, but I digress.

The modest amount of ornamentation and variation Biegel applies in the sonatas seems just right, adding a welcome dimension of spontaneity and intensified character. That’s not the only distinction. The pianist also demonstrates admirable technical fluency, considerable tonal shading and a great deal of stylish sensitivity to make this a first-rate exploration of Mozart’s ever-rewarding sonatas.

For even more of a left-field excursion, how about a piano transcription of Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons”? I’m so over-dosed on this music that I didn’t think any version of it would awaken my senses, but Biegel won me over with the first notes of his own keyboard version, contained on a Naxos release. Although Vivaldi’s seasonal-themed collection of descriptive violin concertos would not seem, at first glance, to translate easily to the piano, Biegel provides the color, nuance and virtuosity to make it work. He fills out the disc with Andrew Gentile’s classy arrangements of Vivaldi’s C major Mandolin Concerto and D major Lute Concerto. Again, the experience proves thoroughly winning.


Sure, you can find the usual symphonies and such among current recordings, but how about something a little different? I was very impressed with three releases, all on Naxos, devoted to orchestral suites from stage works by Strauss and Janáček.

The Strauss collection, with the Buffalo Philharmonic conducted by JoAnn Falletta (yes, Virginia, there is another very talented American female conductor besides Marin Alsop), contains one truly familiar item, the Suite from “Der Rosenkavalier,” which gets a sturdy workout. What makes the disc more appealing is the inclusion of a less-often encountered suite from another opera, “Die Frau ohne Schatten,” and a suite from the relatively obscure ballet “Josephs-Legende.” Falletta secures vibrant responses from the orchestra in both of these richly layered scores.

Even farther a field are the premiere recordings of orchestral suites fashioned by Peter Breiner out of the potent operas of Janáček. Breiner captures the flavor of the composer’s sound and dramatic instincts so well that it’s easy to imagine Janáček. penned the suites himself. At more than a half-hour each, there is a lot of action in these pieces, and the New Zealand Symphony digs deeply into to the material with the guidance of Breiner on the podium. The first release pairs “Jenůfa” with “The Excursion of Mr. Broucek.” The second contains suites from “Katya Kabanova” and “The Makropulos Affair.”

These three discs would be perfect for the opera-shy person on your shopping list. Not a note of vocal music, but a strong sense of each opera’s melodic and emotional power.

BONUS RECOMMENDATIONIf you’re having a tough time deciding on a classical music gift, you can’t go wrong with a hefty collection—six CDs, 111 tracks, 111 artists—released by Deutsche Grammophon to celebrate its 111th anniversary. The selections are arranged alphabetically by performer, so it means that the repertoire is constantly varying—orchestral, vocal, solo instrumental, chamber. The one constant is quality, since the musicians include the likes of Argerich, Caruso, Furtwängler, Heifetz, Maazel, Michelangeli, Segovia, Rostropovich and Wunderlich. The set wouldn’t necessarily be for the classical music purist, who may well frown on miscellaneous excerpts, but it’s a handsome compendium of (and a possible introduction to) the art form and those who have served it nobly for more than a century.

John von Rhein
Chicago Tribune, December 2009

JANACEK, L.: Operatic Orchestral Suites, Vol. 1 (arr. P. Breiner) - Jenufa / The Excursions of Mr Broucek 8.570555
JANACEK, L.: Operatic Orchestral Suites, Vol. 2 (arr. P. Breiner) - Kat’a Kabanova / The Makropulos Affair 8.570556
JANACEK, L.: Operatic Orchestral Suites, Vol. 3 (arr. P. Breiner) - The Cunning Little Vixen / From the House of the Dead 8.570706

Janacek: Orchestral suites from operas. New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Peter Breiner, conductor (Naxos, three separate CDs).: It’s good to find the Janacek operas finally getting their due in the theater and on recording. Too bad the Moravian composer’s purely orchestral output was so slim. Conductor and arranger Peter Breiner fills the void with his beautifully crafted symphonic suites based on music from “Jenufa,” “Katya Kabanova,” “The Cunning Little Vixen” and other masterpieces.

Steve Schwartz, December 2009

JANACEK, L.: Operatic Orchestral Suites, Vol. 1 (arr. P. Breiner) - Jenufa / The Excursions of Mr Broucek 8.570555
JANACEK, L.: Operatic Orchestral Suites, Vol. 2 (arr. P. Breiner) - Kat’a Kabanova / The Makropulos Affair 8.570556

…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.

Jean-Yves Duperron
Classical Music Sentinel, October 2009

The people at Naxos once again step up to the plate and take the road less travelled by recording and presenting to us music not even taken into consideration by other labels. This time around it is more in the way of orchestral suites from famous Leos Janáček operas, reduced and arranged by the conductor, Peter Breiner.

Leos Janáček stands as a unique voice in music. No other composers, even Czech ones, sound anything like Janáček. His unusual rhythmic patterns and odd harmonic intervals forged an identity all his own. If you are familiar with his famous work ‘Sinfonietta’ you will agree that his orchestral sound and stylistic approach are unique in music, and hence the fascination with this brilliant composer.

The two Suites on this new CD released in April of 2009, represent Janáček at his best, and could even be a clear first choice for anyone new to this composer. They are full of memorable character motifs from start to finish, and of course, display Janáček’s unique style. For example, in Kát’a Kabanová, an opera with a plot along the same tragic lines as Madame Butterfly, an obsessive eight note motif on the tuned timpani keeps showing up throughout the Suite to great dramatic effect.

The recorded sound lacks a bit of transparency and detail, but that is a very small drawback considering the wealth of interesting new music this CD puts in our hands. A welcome addition for any music collector.

Bob McQuiston
Classical Lost and Found, September 2009

JANÁČEK, L.: Operatic Orchestral Suites, Vol. 1 (arr. P. Breiner) – Jenůfa / The Excursions of Mr Broucek 8.570555

JANÁČEK, L.: Operatic Orchestral Suites, Vol. 2 (arr. P. Breiner) – Kat’a Kabanova / The Makropulos Affair 8.570556

JANÁČEK, L.: Operatic Orchestral Suites, Vol. 3 (arr. P. Breiner) – The Cunning Little Vixen / From the House of the Dead 8.570706

When it comes to operas, except for stand-alones like overtures, preludes, entr’actes and ballets, it seems that some composers find writing for the orchestra a rather perfunctory task done simply to support the soloists. That’s not the case with Czech composer Leos Janáček (1854–1928) whose orchestral accompaniments comment even further on the speech rhythms and folk-inflected motifs ever present in his vocal lines. Consequently his operas have motivated a number of modern day conductors and composers to extract orchestral suites from them.

Our conductor here, Slovak-born Peter Breiner (b. 1957), tries his hand at it in this series of three CDs containing suites drawn from Leos’ six major operas. Lasting between thirty to forty minutes each, Breiner successfully captures the composer’s unique sound world, and includes more material from the parent operas than most of the other suites currently available on disc. Consequently all Janáček enthusiasts will want these whether they have other versions or not—particularly at Naxos prices!

The third volume in the series [8.570706] begins with a suite from The Cunning Little Vixen (1924), which was inspired by a series of stories that appeared in a Brno newspaper back in 1920. For many this remains Janáček’s most endearing opera. While on the surface there’s a childlike simplicity about it, a fundamentally profound message asserting nature’s unending cycle of birth and death lies underneath. Maestro Breiner’s six-part suite comes across as such a convincing stand-alone symphonic work that it would be easy to believe the opera was a later elaboration of it. Highlights include an infectious “Blue Dragonfly” opening movement [track-1], a captivating Moravian folk-filled “Wedding” scene [track-4] and a “Vixen is Running” finale [tack-6] utilizing some of Janáček’s most powerful music.

The companion suite, From the House of the Dead (1927–28), symphonically encapsulates Leos’ most succinct and arguably finest opera. It’s based on Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s (1821–1881) fictionalized account (1862) of the time he spent in a Siberian prison camp. Due to the very nature of the opera, Breiner’s six part suite doesn’t have the melodic sweep of what we just heard. Instead there are repeated fragmentary motifs that in some ways anticipate minimalism, but not to an extent where “Glassophobes” would find it unlistenable.

The opening overture [track-7] with its insistent driving introductory theme is hypnotic. The “Holiday is Coming” section [track-9] is a fascinating juxtaposition of swaying liturgical passages replete with chimes, and boisterous bass drum-spiked dance episodes. There’s what could even pass as a tiny tone poem in the form of “The Play and the Pantomime” movement [track-11], which harkens back to the Sinfonietta (1926) and much earlier Taras Bulba (1915–18) . A blazing finale entitled “Jesus, God’s Prophet” [track-12] ends the suite enigmatically with optimistic brass fanfares squelched by pessimistic thunderations from the orchestra.

The first selection on volume two [8.570556] is a five-movement suite from Kát’a Kabanová (1921), which is based on Russian dramatist Aleksandr Ostrovsky’s (1823–1886) The Storm (1859). Apparently it was Janáček’s love for Puccini’s (1858–1924) Madama Butterfly (1904) that was a key motivating factor in his writing this heart-rending opera about an ill-fated provincial belle.

At the very beginning of the overture [track-1] eight strokes on the timpani serve as a fate motif (FM), anticipating the tragic tale to come. The “Intermezzo and Songs” section [track-4] contains some lovely melodies undoubtedly derived from Moravian folk sources, and concludes rapturously with some of the composer’s most amorous music. The finale, “The Storm is coming” [track-5], opens dramatically with FM repeated over and over again, and takes on the aspect of a miniature tone poem. There’s a subdued romantic central section, but FM returns and the tension builds, ending with Kát’a’s demise as she jumps into the Volga river.

This disc is filled out with a six-movement suite from The Makropulos Affair. Completed in 1925, the opera is based on a 1922 play by Karel Capek (1890–1938). It’s about a young woman named Elina Makropulos (E.M.) who back in the late 1500s drank a life-extending potion devised by her physician father. It’s kept her young and beautiful for three hundred and thirty seven years, which takes us up to the time of the opera. During her almost vampire-like existence she’s had a variety of names as well as many lovers, and she’s now an opera singer called Emilia Marty (E.M. again).

The opening two sections of the suite, “Death was touching me” [track-6] and “The Gregor Prus Case” [track-7], are notable for a couple of strange glissandi and more of those explosive timpani strokes Leos loved so well. The second section is drawn from the opera’s overture, which anticipates the Sinfonietta, and contains one of the composer’s most engaging melodies [track-7, beginning at 01:35]. The fourth movement, “I am actually an idiot” [track-9], is spiced with some Tzigane touches recalling a time when Elina was known as the gypsy Eugenia Montez (E.M. once again). The stunning finale, “So?” [track-11], where Elina ultimately triumphs over her desire for eternal life by refusing to take any more of the potion, is a real tearjerker.

It seems appropriate the first volume [8.570555] should begin with a suite from Jenůfa (1904), which put Janáček on the operatic map. The folk music of Moravia is some of the most gorgeous in the western world, and its melodies and speech rhythms are the lifeblood of this stage work. It’s based on a tragic drama about peasant life by Czech playwright Gabriela Preissová (1862–1946).

The opening, “Night is already falling” [track-1], is anxiety-ridden and spooked by ossified notes repeated on the xylophone. Two folk highpoints include a wild dance that breaks out in the second part “All are getting married—Every couple must get over its problems” [track-2], and the melody to a fabulous wedding song (“Ej, mamko, mamko” or “Oh mother, mother”) that appears in the fifth movement, “May God grant you a good day” [track-5]. The last part, “They’ve all left—Now you leave too!” [track-6], builds via a spellbinding undulant theme to an overwhelming climax guaranteed to melt the iciest of hearts.

The Excursions of Mr Brouček (1908–17) is the subject of the concluding five-part suite on this disc. The opera is based on a couple of satirical novels by Czech writer Svatopluk Cech (1846–1908). In two parts, the central character is a bumbling besotted landlord named Matej Broucek who takes a trip to the moon in the first half of this farce, and is then transported back to the fifteenth century in the second. Most of the suite is drawn from his lunar excursion, with only the concluding movement derived from his visit to Renaissance times.

With an emphasis on extended melodies, the music here is less folkie than in Leos’ other operas. The two opening movements, “I, Matej Broucek” [track-7] and “There is the Moon” [track-8], open the suite in lyrical fashion with a minimum of those quirky rhythmic passages so typical of the composer. The third section, “Waltzes and Other Dances” [track-9], is about as folkish as the suite ever gets, but the predominance of waltz episodes will bring Richard Strauss’ (1864–1949) Der Rosenkavalier (1911) to mind. The finale, “Those who are the warriors of God” [track-11], sounds more like the composer, and contains a bit of Czech nationalism in the form of a reference to the same Hussite hymn Smetana (1824–1884) quotes in Ma Vlast (1872–79) [track-11, beginning at 01:23]. It ends the suite triumphantly, and brings this CD to a memorable conclusion.

With the arranger conducting, all of these performances by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra are totally committed and even passionate where appropriate. In the process the musicians from down under certainly prove themselves a class act! Some may find a couple of Maestro Breiner’s tempos a little slow, but in the context of these suites they seem to work.

All three albums were recorded between May and August of 2007 at Wellington Town Hall and produced by the same personnel, so it’s not surprising that the sonics are uniformly demonstration quality. The soundstage is perfectly proportioned with enough intimacy for instrumental detail, but at the same time sufficient space for this intricate music to breath.

The orchestral timbre remains natural over the extended frequency and dynamic range engendered by Janáček’s brilliant instrumentation. Tinkling bells, triangles and tambourines will tweak your tweeters. While at the other end of the audio spectrum, timpani and bass drum profundities will plumb the depths of your woofers. Audiophiles take note!

Dan Morgan
MusicWeb International, July 2009

…the Naxos sound…is satisfyingly deep and wide…Breiner…does capture some of the opera’s distinctive rhythms and colours—just listen to those dashes of Taras Bulba starting at 1:52. Also, there is some lovely, tender playing at the start of the second movement, while in the third—where Kát’a looks forward to her clandestine meeting with Boris—Breiner conjures up vivid, authentic-sounding harmonies; there is more dramatic thrust here as well, although perhaps the sharper edges of Janáček’s score are somewhat blunted.

I particularly liked the free-flowing music of Intermezzos and Songs (tr. 4), where Breiner teases delectable sounds from his orchestra…the New Zealand Symphony…with flair and character throughout. The lovers’ brief moments of happiness are glowingly done, but before long we are plunged into the final movement and the approaching storm. This pivotal event is a lightning rod for all the opera’s pent-up emotions, rendered by Janáček in music of extraordinary tension and power. Yes, Breiner is exciting here and he does capture the pain of Kát’a’s dilemma, but in this arrangement we lose sight of the opera’s broader span, its cumulative tension.

…The New Zealand Symphony sound thrilling here [The Makropulos Affair], Wellington Town Hall a good match for Breiner’s more expansive view of the score…Breiner finds a good balance between lyricism and drama, seriousness and absurdity, in tracks 8 and 9. In the end Emilia is within reach of that elusive potion but decides to embrace death instead. Despite the absurdities of the plot Janáček’s potent score makes it remarkably easy to suspend disbelief, nowhere more so than here.

…Some listeners will enjoy this selection of tunes; others will surely prefer the emotional and musical maelstrom of the operas themselves.

Phil Muse
Atlanta Audio Society, June 2009

These suites, drawn from the operas Katyka Kabonová and The Makropoulos Affair, show Janáček’s imagination at its most fertile and his love of orchestral color at its most inventive.

More than that, much of the vividness of Janáček’s writing is due to his use of what he called “speech tunes,” terse motifs based on the pitch, rhythm, and inflections of the Czech language. The repetition of these motifs in his music can have a powerful cumulative effect. Some have gone so far as to term Janáček “the first minimalist composer,” but the ascription is misleading, for he uses repetition in a much more effective way than do today’s minimalists to achieve a dramatic impact.

Katyka Kabonová  is the tragic tale, drawn from the Russian dramatist Ostrovsky’s play The Storm, of a young woman in a provincial town who commits suicide by drowning to atone for her shame in having had an illicit affair. In the suite, the music is appropriately dark and fatalistic, lightened only by moments associated with Katya’s brief moment of happiness with her lover Boris and her remembrance of the same shortly before her headlong plunge to her death. Eight beats of the tympani against more harmonious music in the rest of the orchestra in the first movement of the suite symbolize the compelling power of fate in a simple, uneventful life. When Katya’s husband Tikhon journeys to market in Act 1, leaving his young bride defenseless against temptation, a searing high note in the strings, against a treacherous sounding reef of woodwinds and brass, signified impending danger.

In Act 2, the calls from their friends to return home when Katya has her fateful rendezvous with Boris are so perfectly realized in the orchestra that one can almost hear the very words (in Czech, of course, which is Breiner’s native tongue). The final act of the opera deals with Katya’s wandering blindly through a gathering storm of cyclonic power, superbly realized in both Janáček’s writing and the performance of the New Zealand SO, which gets first-rate playing from every chair.

The Makropoulos Affair is based on the philosophical comedy of the same title by Czech playwright Karel Čapek. In the story, Emilia Marty, an operatic diva, is incredibly three and a half centuries old, having lived under various names in different countries, beginning as a Greek woman named Elena Makropoulos. The secret of her eternal youth and beauty, which have resulted in numerous love affairs over the years, is a miraculous potion which is anxious to find again in order to prolong her life.

Peter Breiner’s decision to use the music from the final scene, in which Emilia rejects the potion in favor of a natural death and oblivion, makes for an effective device in the six-movement suite, as the main body of the suite unfolds as a series of what would be termed “flashbacks” in cinema. Much of the music is highly lyrical and sensuous, as befits the heroine and her amorous career, with the thud of the tympani (as so often in Janáček) signifying impending fate. Breiner is quite sensitive to all the elements in the opera, which is romantic as well as satirical in tone, keeping both the piquant and sensual elements in clear perspective. The glorious coda, symbolizing Emilia’s decision to embrace death as a release, is beautifully handled here.

Zach Carstensen
Seattle Sound Magazine, May 2009

The first opera I ever heard all the way through was a radio broadcast of Leos Janáček’s “Kát’a Kabanová.”  Other people might have been inducted into the world of opera through Mozart or Puccini.  Not me.  It was Kata, Tichon, her cranky mother in-law, and a suicidal plunge into the Volga that first filled my ears.  This second release in Naxos’s cycle of Peter Breiner arranged suites from Janáček’s operas is a winner.  Two operas are represented on this disc—“Kát’a Kabanová and “The Makropulos Affair.”  Even in a compressed form like a suite, Breiner conveys the essentials of these operas—sadness, passion, torment, and fate. Janáček’s appealing musical fragments and harmonies are retained too.   Naxos’s recording is clear and the New Zealand Symphony is responsive under Breiner’s baton.  What a great, new way to experience these two operas.  Fans of Janáček shouldn’t hesitate—get this disc.

Uncle Dave Lewis, May 2009

Janáček’s orchestral scoring in his operas is significantly different from that in his orchestral works like the Sinfonietta and the Concertino. He was deeply interested—obsessed, really—with properties of speech and carried a notebook with him, taking down phrases he heard in lectures and conversations and utilizing an improvised form of notation to capture the rising, falling cadences of certain speakers. This informed Janáček’s approach to vocal writing and in supporting his vocal parts, he often scored very lightly, careful not to obscure the meaning or the speech-derived melody of the singing in his operas. In Káta Kabanová—a work where this technique is conspicuously apparent—this leads, in Breiner’s orchestration, to some long stretches of rather empty and nebulous passages that cry out for the power of the voice to drive them along. However, the last movement, “The storm is coming,” is self-sufficient as an orchestral piece, the pictorial element in Janáček’s original being an adequate jumping off point in working up something exciting and engaging. The Makropulos Affair is the more successful of the two suites; given that Karel Capek’s play about a 337-year-old opera singer furnished Janáček with a wealth of inspiration for quirky figures, chattering rhythms, and gently comic ideas that are of interest beyond the vocal writing.

Naxos’ recording is clear, if a little distant and lacking in punch, but adequate. Breiner’s project to render Janáček’s operatic music in orchestral garb is worthwhile; if one loves Janáček through his instrumental music, but cannot bear the thought of approaching the operas themselves, Naxos’ Janácek: Orchestral Suite from the Operas, Vol. 2, will certainly serve as a good halfway house between the two.

David Hurwitz, April 2009

It’s particularly exciting to hear the music from Kát’a Kabanova, the composer’s most voluptuous (and saddest) opera. Breiner basically follows the course of the action in his five-movement suite, and after a fairly stiff performance of the overture his conducting steadily improves, as (it seems) does the confidence of the orchestra. The long last movement, all from the third act, is very skillfully put together, and the storm music comprising the first few minutes packs the sonic and emotional wallop that it must. Fans of the opera will really enjoy this.

José Serebrier has already made a suite from The Makropulos Case at the behest of Universal Edition, and he recorded it pretty stunningly for Reference Recordings. Breiner’s six-movement arrangement is quite different. His decision to frame the piece with the opera’s final scene is both smart and effective, though he should have used more of Marty’s final monologue when he brings back the same music at the end. He also adapts more material from Act 2 than does Serebrier, and Breiner’s willingness to organize the music more freely results in a very satisfying half-hour, much more lyrical and tuneful than you might have thought possible. A very enjoyable disc, overall

David Denton
David's Review Corner, March 2009

No other composer of the 20th century created such a totally individual musical voice as that of Leos Janáček, and with a single-mindedness he pursued this style throughout his life. Only in the past thirty years has his operatic masterpieces become part of the standard repertoire, and even in his homeland they were largely ignored. It was the story of the wife living in dread of a dominating mother-in-law and a weak husband that sparked the harrowing opera, Kat’a Kabanova. In a fledgling love for another man she finds a brief moment of happiness, but in feelings of guilt she commits suicide, the mother-in-law remaining unmoved when her body is found. Of all of his operas this most readily gives up its inner feelings to an orchestral suite. More problematic is the voice-dominated Makropulos Affair, a story of the woman whose father treated her with a life-enhancing potion that has seen her live for 337 years. Now entangled in an inheritance legal battle, she faces the prospect of aging if she helps the case to its rightful conclusion, yet only by confessing her long life, could she tell the truth of the case. The suites have been created by the Czech-born conductor and arranger Peter Breiner, who has felt free to move music out of the order to create balanced scores. Those who do not know the operas will be untroubled, and as a lifelong champion of Janáček, I welcome anything that advances his name to a wider audience. Maybe harder timpani sticks would have helped both suites, but the orchestral playing from the New Zealand Symphony with Breiner conducting is sympathetic and mostly in keeping with the mood of the opera. Sound quality is very good.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group