l-r: Andrew Staples, Amanda Majeski, and Sir Simon Rattle, conductor, with the London Symphony Orchestra in a 2023 performance of Janáček's “Káťa Kabanová” at the Barbican. (credit: Mark Allan)

London Symphony Orchestra continues its live recordings of Janáček’s operas with “Káťa Kabanová”

ALBUM REVIEW:
Janáček: Katya Kabanova
London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle, conductor; William Spaulding, chorus director. Cast: Amanda Majeski (Katya), Simon O’Neill (Boris), Andrew Staples (Tichon), Katarina Dalayman (Kabanicha), Pavlo Hunka (Dikoy), Magdalena Kožená (Varvara), Ladislav Elgr (Kudryash), Claire Barnett-Jones Glasha (Feklusha), and Lukáš Zeman (Kuligin).
Leoš JANÁČEK: Káťa Kabanová
LSO Live LSO0889
Formats: Hybrid SACDs (2 discs)
Release Date: February 23, 2024
Total Duration: 1:39:26 [38:26 (Disc 1) + 61:00 (Disc 2)]

Giorgio Koukl | 16 FEB 2024

The Czech composer Leoš Janáček (1854-1928) arrived to success relatively late. His refusal to use current musical patterns of his time, partly because he never learned them, partly because his personal concept of aesthetics had the tendency to go in a different direction, far more similar to the folk music of his native Moravia, brought him the granitic opposition of the Prague musical establishment.

LSO0889 cover art

LSO0889 cover art

Only when he arrived at a quasi-retirement time did more interest in his music begin to subsist. Shortly after the end of the First World War, the composer, unhappily married and in love with a 40 years younger married woman named Kamila Stösslová, literally exploded with creativity. In this ardent creative outburst, his muse certainly played a major role. So he wrote in a feverish sequence some of his major works like the opera, The Cunning Little Vixen, the Glagolitic Mass, and the opera about which we center our interest today: Káťa Kabanová (anglicized as Katya Kabanova on this SACD set).

Based on the play by the Russian writer Alexander Ostrovsky, The Storm was translated into Czech by Vincenc Cervinka. Its central plot touched Janáček profoundly, speaking about the drama of an unhappy marriage, love, and consequent suicide, something with which the Czech maestro could quickly identify himself. After a miserable experience with libretto writers of his previous opera, Janáček decided to tackle this work himself, obtaining an excellent, lyrical text to be filled “with the most melancholic, beautiful, and loving music,” as he wrote to Kamila Stösslov.


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For this album, Sir Simon Rattle with the London Symphony Orchestra recorded Káťa Kabanová as a continuation of his cycle of “live” Janáček opera recordings following the major success of The Little Cunning Vixen released in 2020.

He is well-served by the best singers available, with Simon O’Neil and especially Amanda Majeski in the principal roles. Most of the secondary roles, like that of Dikoj, Kabanicha, and Varvara, are also sung by outstanding professionals.

We can follow this intricate play of nearly Dostojevskian quality, where the villains and the heroes are clearly and vividly described. Logically, it is easier when such a masterwork plays in a theater; Janáček has planned his drama in a very theatrical way. Obviously, on an audio disc, the visual part of a drama is missing. Adding to that, given the less-than-good Czech pronunciation of most of the singers, an average listener will have certain difficulties following the dialogue intricacy, if not the entire plot. Maybe some more investment in an excellent Czech language coach would have been beneficial not only for the people understanding the language but also in terms of getting the right nouns in the places where the composer wanted them to be, a thing missing far too often.


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There are two principal scenes where the whole score reveals all its difficulties and where many of the previous installments usually failed.

The first is the storm scene. Storms in the operatic world are an extremely welcome feature, an effective way to underline the intrinsic drama of the protagonists. Here, Janáček masterfully combines nature and its tensions with the soul tensions of his main character, Káťa. When both erupt, the thunder strikes, and Káťa decides to confess publicly her extramarital affair; this is a truly cathartic moment. Amanda Majeski is at her peak here and finds the right expression, even if she is somehow disturbed by the too-loud orchestra. Nonetheless, this can be considered a very refined rendering, surely well above the usual level.

Generally speaking, Sir Simon Rattle keeps his orchestra a hint too aggressive, which in certain scenes can be fine but is excessive at many times in terms of the composer’s request for melancholic and loving music. While certainly spectacular, it does not render the author’s true intentions.

The other place is the final scene, where Káťa Kabanová decides to put an end to her life, jumping into the Volga River. Before doing so, she sings about a beautiful and chilly vision of birds nestling over her grave. This scene is a real highlight for Ms. Majeski and her expressive voice.


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The end comes with a crowd of peasants — the chorus — surrounding the corpse of the drowned victim and her mother-in-law Kabanicha, sung by an outstanding mezzo-soprano Katarina Dalayman, cynically thanks everybody for the expressed condolences.

As explained in the booklet, this live performance was recorded in two days, on 11 and 13 January 2023, so calling it a “live performance” is probably a little exaggerated. It is realized in the new high-density recording technology for those fortunate enough to have 5.1 loudspeakers in their homes.

Even if there are better recordings from the past, this disc has much to offer in terms of the spontaneity and high artistry of the singers.

The cast of Katya Kabanova with the London Symphony Orchestra, on stage at the Barbican Hall,following the concert performance on 11 January 2023. At the front of the stage, from left to right: William Spaulding (chorus director), Lukáš Zeman (Kuligin), Andrew Staples (Tichon), Simon O’Neill (Boris), Ladislav Elgr (Kudryash), Pavlo Hunka (Dikoy), Sir Simon Rattle  (conductor), Claire Barnett-Jones Glasha (Feklusha), Katarina Dalayman (Kabanicha), Magdalena Kožená (Varvara), and Amanda Majeski (Katya). (credit: Mark Allan)

The cast of Katya Kabanova with the London Symphony Orchestra, on stage at the Barbican Hall,
following the concert performance on 11 January 2023. At the front of the stage, from left to right: William Spaulding (chorus director), Lukáš Zeman (Kuligin), Andrew Staples (Tichon), Simon O’Neill (Boris), Ladislav Elgr (Kudryash), Pavlo Hunka (Dikoy), Sir Simon Rattle (conductor), Claire Barnett-Jones Glasha (Feklusha), Katarina Dalayman (Kabanicha), Magdalena Kožená (Varvara), and Amanda Majeski (Katya). (credit: Mark Allan)

 

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About the author:
Giorgio Koukl is a Czech-born pianist/harpsichordist and composer who resides in Lugano, Switzerland. Among his many recordings are the complete solo piano works and complete piano concertos of Bohuslav Martinů on the Naxos label. He has also recorded the piano music of Tansman, Lutosławski, Kapralova, and A. Tcherepnin, amongst others, for the Grand Piano label. (photo: Chiara Solari)

Read more by Giorgio Koukl.
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