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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

Brian Wilson
MusicWeb International, March 2010

This, the last in the series of orchestral suites, is every bit the equal of the earlier volumes, the first of which was a MusicWeb Recording of the Year for 2009. There are two very different operas here, but the combination is very welcome. I downloaded it from immediately after their complete site revamp, when the flac download was not available; I was completely happy with the mp3 (at 320kbps).

The WSCL Blog, January 2010

The third and final volume of this series of Janáček opera suites, arranged by Peter Breiner. “The Cunning Little Vixen” is a folk tale based on a children’s comic strip, and contains some of his most charming music…

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.

Guy Rickards
Gramophone, December 2009

The final volume in Breiner’s expansive extractions from Janáček’s operas

The suite usually performed from Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen, arranged by Talich in the 1930s, is a 17-minute diptych using material from Act 1 only (ie up to the point of the Vixen’s bloody escape from the Forester’s yard) and is based on a reorchestration Talich commissioned that was easier to play. Breiner’s returns to the original and runs to nearly 40 minutes. Breiner’s first two movements follow the same basic trajectory as Talich’s but the suite then takes off with the Vixen’s courtship and eventual marriage to the Fox over the next two spans. The fifth movement deals with the Vixen’s desperate hunt to feed her cubs and eventual death at the hand of the poacher but the brief finale (“Vixen is Running”) lights up the orchestra with its paean to nature.

Hope of a different kind underlies From the House of the Dead, Janáček’s final opera. Here Breiner has started with the Overture (related to the music of the Violin Concerto) and proceeds once again through six highly coloured movements running to over 35 minutes. The hard edge of Janáček’s scoring, devoid of the vocal elements, becomes even more telling.

Breiner himself conducts, securing accomplished playing from the New Zealanders, and Naxos’s sound is rich with depth.

J Scott Morrison, September 2009

Janáček’s Wonderful Orchestral Music from Two of his Operas

This is the third and final volume of Naxos of orchestral music from the operas of Leos Janáček as arranged by the conductor of these discs, Peter Breiner Janáček: Orchestral Suites from the Operas, Vol. 1—Jenůfa —Suite & The Excursions of Mr Brouček—Suite [8.570555], Janáček: Orchestral Suites from the Operas, Vol. 2 [- Kat’a Kabanova, The Makropulos Affair 8.570556]. There is much to love in Janáček’s orchestral writing, as those of you who know his music know. The two operas featured on this disc—‘The Cunning Little Vixen’ and ‘From the House of the Dead’—are perhaps not his best-known but each has been coming into its own recently…These CDs can give you a taste of that music without your having to pay so much attention to plot or singing; you might not like this Opera Without Words approach but there are plenty of music-lovers who like the opportunity to pay more attention to the music qua music that way. (Just think of all those orchestral opera synopses Stokowski made for these folks. [See Stokowski Transcriptions 8.557883 and Stokowski Transcriptions Vol 2 8.572050) And when the music is as delicious, even hypnotic, and as nicely played as here, it serves a real purpose.

David Hurwitz, September 2009

Peter Breiner’s arrangements of music from these two operas succeed on a number of levels. First, the two works offer a great deal of symphonic music to work with (the ballets in Vixen, and the overture and pantomime in House). Second, he has arranged the excerpts very intelligently for continuous listening. In the Vixen Suite it’s great to hear the scene in Act 3 with the baby foxes, and it makes an excellent lead-in to the final bars. Similarly, the preludes to the second and third acts of House are nicely integrated into lengthier tracts of music.

Yes, I have a couple of quibbles. The added percussion is completely unnecessary: why all the triangle in the Vixen suite? Obviously there’s nothing wrong with substituting instruments for vocal lines, or filling out the texture of bare accompaniments, but Breiner gets a bit carried away in spots (though certainly not worse than Janáček’s early arrangers, Vaclav Talich included).

As a conductor, Breiner is almost totally successful. Occasionally his tempos drag a bit, as in the “Eagle, King of the Forests” music in House, or in the closing scene of the Vixen’s first act—it ought to be mayhem personified, but here it’s simply too careful. Elsewhere, everything goes very well, with the New Zealand Symphony making a more positive impression here than in earlier releases in this series. Perhaps it’s at least partly due to the generally more colorful orchestration, which the engineering projects to vivid effect. Strongly recommended.

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!

David Denton
David's Review Corner, August 2009

This is the third and final volume intended for those who have yet to discover Janacek’s great operas, the conductor of this disc, Peter Breiner, having devised highly attractive orchestral suites. As Janacek used purely orchestral music to illustrate life in the forest, Breiner has little to do to create the suite from The Cunning Little Vixen, the composer’s most charming and endearing opera. The story tells of the gamekeeper who brings home a young orphaned vixen as a pet for his children. It is a very bright youngster, and having caused havoc in the farmyard, escapes back into the forest. Even so the gamekeeper cannot but admire the spirited young animal, and it is with him that we follow her adventures and those of the villagers who come into the story. She mates and has her own cubs, but soon after she is shot by a villager, the gamekeeper at the end of the work seeing another young cub just like its mother to continue nature’s cycle. Things are very different for Breiner in the harrowing story of prison life in Siberia pictured by Janacek in From the House of the Dead. It is a grey and traumatic score filled with short cameos of its inmates, Breiner having little alternative but to draw extensively on the music that forms the backdrop for a comic play put on by the prisoners. Listening to the suite you would hardly picture the nature of an opera I always feel compelled to see whenever I can. It is a horrid message of cruelty that is contained in words and actions and would defy communication in an orchestral suite. Throughout the disc the New Zealand orchestra are in fine form, atmospherically capturing the nature scenes in the Little Vixen, while the producer and engineer provide a very realistic sound.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group