New recording of Janacek's "Sarka" released

Janacek CD

The legendary mediaeval war between men and women - that is said to have taken place just outside today's Prague - is one of the central myths in the Czech national identity. It combines history, romance and legend, and ever since the National Revival of the 19th century has often been an inspiration to Czech composers - most famously Smetana, in his cycle of symphonic poems "My Country". The story inspired another of the great Czech composers, Leos Janacek, but his opera based on the story of the Amazon warrior "Sarka", has been almost forgotten. Yet, as David Vaughan reports, change is on the way.

Janacek CD
Amazingly, only now has a first full recording of Janacek's "Sarka" been released, performed by the Czech Philharmonic and conducted by someone who probably knows more about Janacek's music than anyone else, the celebrated British conductor, Sir Charles Mackerras. One reason for the opera's long neglect is its rather complicated life history. When Janacek had nearly completed it - as a young man in 1887 - the author of the poem on which the libretto was based, Julius Zeyer, refused to give him permission to go ahead. For years Janacek kept working on the project in private, and "Sarka" was not premiered until over thirty years later. When I spoke to Sir Charles Mackerras at the launch of the new CD, he told me that this was just one of the things that made the opera so interesting.

"I looked at the score and I heard an old, old, old radio recording and I really was terribly impressed with it, and then, when I started to read its history, and had seen that it had been the first of his operas and that he went on developing it and went on returning to it, until when it was at last performed, he was already terribly famous and had written most of his famous works, that at last it was performed in Brno. So you can trace the development of this work over thirty years. The second act is really wonderful. It is just from beginning to end wonderful Janacek, developed Janacek."

Is the next step maybe to have it performed at the Czech National Theatre?

"They might do that. I know that the National Theatre has it in mind to produce all of Janacek's operas again, so maybe Sarka might be one of them."

In the recording, released by Supraphon, Sir Charles conducts the Czech Philharmonic, and the soloists include Peter Straka, as Ctirad the warrior killed by the Amazons, and Eva Urbanova, as Sarka herself.

And David will be returning to the opera in the next edition of our Saturday classical music programme, "Encore".