Classical: Katya comes home - in true style

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JANACEK: Katya Kabanova

Benackova, Straka, Randova, Peckova, Czech Philharmonic / Sir Charles Mackerras

(Supraphon SU 3291-2 632; two CDs)

Sir Charles Mackerras had two very good reasons for wanting to re-record Janacek's Katya Kabanova and neither of them in any way impinges on the classic status of his stunning Decca account with the Vienna Philharmonic and Elisabeth Soderstrom. They are the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and Gabriela Benackova - and together they return Katya to the bossom of her homeland.

It has to do with sound and inflection, with voices and orchestra co- exisiting in a very organic way. It has to do with timbre. The Czech Philharmonic sound is painfully honest: blunt, plain-speaking, but with a homeliness all its own. For all the darkness and trenchancy, there is warmth, great warmth. Sir Charles, of course, has that sound in his ears. It's the Janacek sound - unvarnished, unadorned - and it's a troubled sound. The incongruity of the xylophone marking time, the steely glint of harp (an uncomfortable light in the gloaming), the rasp of muted horns and trombones, the suffocating thud of timpani screwed up tight and high, reedy woodwinds, hyperventilating violins. Broken phrases, broken dreams. And then, from the midst of nowhere, an overwhelming longing.

The Vienna Philharmonic (on Decca) got that, too (and how), but they were sleeker. Still, I'm not entirely sure that the earlier performance (my choice, if pressed) wasn't the more febrile, the more imperative (if less wholly idiomatic), of the two.

There isn't much to split the two casts, save the Czechness of the newer account - with the marvellous Benackova radiant in one of her signature roles. It's good to have that preserved on disc. Her private ecstasies - the passionate nature that may never know freedom - are thrillingly conveyed, borne aloft in the Act 1 aria (airy orchestrations led by the cumulus waftings of the solo horn), reaching an apogee in her heart-stopping call to the roving winds in the final monologue. Then there are the quiet distillations of sweet, consoling words whispered softly to her in the night. There's a place for her, somewhere beyond the confused morality of this life.

Her sister, Varvara - a strong performance from the upcoming Dagmar Peckova - is the embodiment of that freedom; but her bigot of a mother-in-law - Eva Randova, playing down the Gothic while sharpening the forked-tongue - has thrown away the keys. The men here are fine, but Janacek was a women's liberationist.

A masterpiece, then, twice honoured by one conductor.

Edward Seckerson

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