A Variable Start to the Philharmonia’s Bohemian Legends Series

13/04/2014

 Janáček, Dvořák, Suk Arabella Steinbacher (violin), Philharmonia Orchestra, Jakob Hrůša. Royal Festival Hall, 10.4 2014 (CC)

Janáček Žárlivost (Jealousy).
Dvořák – Violin Concerto in A minor, Op. 53/B96
Suk – Praga
Janáček – Sinfonietta

The idea of three concert celebrating “Bohemian Legends” is a mouth-watering one, especially if the orchestra in question is the Philharmonia. Under the direction of a native Czech, the young Jakob Hrůša, the mini-series will investigate music both familiar and unfamiliar. That must have been the determining factor to placing Janáček’s Sinfonietta last on the programme; even though there would have been a firm argument for leaving Suk’s Praga until last.

The idea of video introductions to the music we are about to hear is a relatively new and, I hope, short-lived one. Nice though it was to see lots of shots of Prague behind Hrůša’s filmed ruminations, it all seemed a little foisted upon us. It would be much better to get to the nitty-gritty with no further ado.

Janáček’s Žárlivost (Jealousy) was originally intended as the Prelude to Jenůfa. It is a young man’s piece, full of energy and storm, but with plenty of underlying lyricism there too. Certainly, the gestural opening made its effect, as did the somewhat pastoral woodwind comments to the ongoing musical argument. This was in fact a performance shot through with beauty; the brass-encrusted climax was positively radiant.

The Dvořák Violin Concerto seems to be getting more outings of late, so possibly there is a chance it will emerge from out of the shade of the Cello Concerto. It is a beautiful piece, and although its structure has been seen as challenging, in the right hands it can be stunning. Akiko Suwanai’s recording makes a highly convincing case for the piece (review). Here was another talented young female violinist, Arabella Steinbacher to give her spin. Unfortunately most of the pleasure came from the well-shaped orchestral contribution, with the wind again making some memorable contributions. Despite an admirable warmth of sound at the opening, though, Steinbacher’s tone could get harsh in the upper registers when at the higher dynamic levels and her approach was not the subtlest. Perhaps some of the buoyant passages failed to bounce enough from the orchestra to reveal their dance origin, but more fatally Steinbacher failed to capture the passion. Again, the Adagio ma non troppo central movement found her wanting, superficial and rather cold and one found oneself listening more to the orchestra than to the soloist, simply because that is where the enjoyment lay, be it in the radiant climax or the forest-horn calls of the closing moments. The finale was curiously underpowered, and some of Steinbacher’s contributions sounded rather like a rote étude. There was an encore, though, and for this Steinbacher seemed much more at home: Ysaÿe’s virtuoso Obsession.

The real treat, by far, of the evening was Josef Suk’s extended (26 minute) tone poem Praga of 1904. This was a consummately drawn performance, from the portentous low unison horns in the mysterious opening through the simply gorgeous woodwind contributions. The piece is scored for a huge orchestra and Hrůša ensured lines were clearly heard; indeed, he paced the entire performance extremely convincingly. His beat is very clear, and it was aurally obvious that the Philharmonia have warmed to him. Despite the stirring nature of the climaxes, it was the darker portions of the score that were most effective. The ending, though, glowed magnificently. Perhaps too much so, as the performance of Janáček’s Sinfonietta that followed simply did not live up to it.

Not that it was bad in any identifiable way. The line of brass in the choir stalls and in front of the organ had plenty of heft, but the famous first movement was loud without being breath-taking. Ensemble was rather shaky at times in the second movement (The Castle); the central Moderato movement was the best of the performance, warm toned initially and alive to the composer’s many turns of mood. But the return of the fanfares at the end of the fifth movement failed to move, even if they were terrifically loud. Technically, Hrůša’s conducting was flawless, but the result we heard was far from so. Perhaps he should take the risk of putting the Suk last next time.

Colin Clarke

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