Janáček's Taras Bulba: a guide to Janáček's powerful piece and its best recordings
As the grim fate of a Cossack father and his sons are portrayed in one of Janáček’s most graphic orchestral scores, Terry Blain selects the most powerful recordings of Taras Bulba
What is Leoš Janáček’s Taras Bulba about?
A father kills his own son, and watches his other son being executed. He himself is then burnt alive, yelling defiantly at his Polish captors.
Such is the scenario of Leoš Janáček’s ‘rhapsody for orchestra’ Taras Bulba, adapted from a novel by the 19th-century Russian writer Nikolai Gogol.
When did Janáček compose Taras Bulba and what inspired him?
The moments of savagery in the score – there are battle scenes and a death in all three movements – undoubtedly reflect the brutal military conditions in wartime Europe as Janáček composed Taras, from 1915-18. But the subject matter inspired him too: in Taras, the Ukrainian Cossack warrior, he saw a symbol of resistance to the German forces threatening his homeland of Moravia, and he dedicated the work to ‘our army, the armed protector of our nation’.
The work’s strongly patriotic, pro-Slavic sentiments and moments of shriekingly expressionistic scoring make Taras Bulba one of the most potent examples of Janáček’s orchestral writing.
Best recordings of Taras Bulba?
Karel Ančerl (conductor)
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra (1961)
Is there anything particularly special about Czech performers playing a Czech composer’s music? There certainly can be, if Karel Ančerl’s (right) wonderful account of Taras Bulba with the Czech Phil is anything to go by. The distinctiveness kicks in early, with the uniquely plangent wind playing at the opening of ‘The Death of Andrij’. Both cor anglais and oboe soloists use more vibrato than might be expected, but it’s beautifully inflected, and suits the keening quality of the music.
Ančerl’s native understanding of Janáček’s spiky, rebarbative idiom is another crucial element. He is one of the few conductors to stop the brassy battle sequence in ‘The Death of Andrij’ from becoming a blaring free-for-all. Rhythms are sharply etched, accents cleanly pointed, and a sense of balance struck between the orchestra’s different sections without sacrificing excitement. That rhythmic acerbity is evident again in the slicing violin motifs which launch ‘The Death of Ostap’, and the lean, hungry string sound Ančerl elicits from the Czech Philharmonic adds an extra edge and febrility to the agitated march music as Ostap is ushered to his execution.
The recorded sound is on the dry side, and in the grand peroration of Taras’s prophecy becomes a touch strident. But it’s not enough to knock Ančerl’s riveting recording of Taras Bulba from its position as the finest currently available.
Rafael Kubelík (conductor)
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (1971)
Rafael Kubelík’s recording of Taras Bulba was made a decade after Ančerl’s, and reflects improvements in recording technology, with a warmer, more naturally balanced sound. Interpretively, Kubelík pushes Ančerl close. No other conductor catches quite as he does the sense of doom surrounding Andrij’s love for the Polish girl in the opening movement; the reprise of their music has a tragic poignancy.
The fierce, frenetic savagery he summons for Bulba’s death by fire in the finale is also unequalled, and the visionary epilogue is incandescent. If Ančerl’s coupling (the Glagolitic Mass) is unsuitable, then Kubelík’s disc – which includes the Sinfonietta and Concertino – comes strongly into the picture. It’s a darker, more ferocious view of Taras Bulba than even Ančerl’s, and runs it close for top position.
José Serebrier (conductor)
Czech State Philharmonic, Brno (1995)
Reference Recordings RR2103
José Serebrier’s Taras Bulba, on a two-disc collection of JanáΩek’s orchestral music for the audiophile Reference Recordings label, is by a clear distance the finest-sounding available, stunning in the breadth and depth of its spatial perspectives. Artistically it also ranks highly: Serebrier coaxes playing of slinky sensuality from the players of the excellent Brno orchestra in the love music of ‘The Death of Andrij’, and he is especially good at knitting together the successive episodes of the trickily structured finale.
Nobody quite touches the special sense of sustained intensity found in Karel Ančerl’s classic interpretation. But Serebrier’s is a resplendent recording which reveals the inner workings of Janáček’s orchestration like no other; and the sound quality is superb.
Antoni Wit (conductor)
Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra (2010)
Antoni Wit was music director of the Warsaw Philharmonic when this recording of Taras Bulba was made, and together they conjure a sound splendidly suited to Janáček. The snorting trombones and resiny string playing as Poles and Cossacks clash in the ‘The Death of Andrij’ have weightiness and crackle, and are richly caught in Naxos’s excellently balanced recording.
While lacking some of the urgency of both Ančerl and Kubelík, Wit finds nobility in the burgeoning brass and organ chorales heralding Taras’s prophecy in the concluding movement, with full-blooded, confident playing throughout the orchestra. With characterful accounts of the Lachian and Moravian Dances as coupling, Wit’s is undoubtedly a Taras Bulba to be reckoned with, and it heads the field of budget discs.