Peter Breiner

Janácek: Orchestral Suites from the Operas, Vol. 2

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Peter Breiner is a long-standing associate of the Naxos label and has taken more than his share of critical heat from the classical establishment for some of his projects, such as concerto grossi based on Beatles songs and his jazzy cadenzas to piano concertos of Mozart. However, Breiner is Czech, despite his German-sounding name, and has turned his attention to the more germane matter of developing orchestral suites from the operas of arch-Czech composer Leos Janácek. Janácek did not create orchestral suites from his own operas; the familiar suite from The Cunning Little Vixen was cobbled together by conductor Vaclav Talich well after Janácek's death in 1928. Perhaps the reason Janácek himself never broke any concert music out of his operas is that he never realized just how popular they would ultimately become. Breiner is pulling suites from the eight operas not exploited by Talich, and Naxos' Janácek: Orchestral Suite from the Operas, Vol. 2, featuring Breiner leading the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, includes his extrapolations from Káta Kabanová and The Makropulos Affair.

Janácek'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 Janácek'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 Janácek'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 Janácek 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 Janácek's operatic music in orchestral garb is worthwhile; if one loves Janácek 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.

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