Hrůša and Faust Make Fine Impression at the Tonhalle

26/06/2017

Bartók, Schumann, Janáček: Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich / Jakob Hrůša (conductor), Isabelle Faust (violin) Tonhalle, Zurich, 23.6.2017. (JR)

Bartók – Concert Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin Op.19
Schumann – Violin Concerto  WoO 1
Janáček – Sinfonietta for large orchestra Op.60

Young Czech conductor Jakub Hrůša made his debut with the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich this week and made a very fine impression indeed. “Gramophone” Magazine has described him as “on the verge of greatness” and I will not argue with that on the strength of this performance. Hrůša is a pupil of the late Jiří Bělohlávek and clearly destined for the top flight. The Philharmonia in London have spotted his talent and appointed him, from 2017/2018, their Principal Guest Conductor. He can be seen and heard at this summer’s BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall (26th August) with an all-Czech programme.

The concert commenced with music from Hungary, Bartók’s orchestral suite from The Miraculous Mandarin. The striking work was composed for the ballet; there are a few short sections that are rather bland and which need the addition of actions of dancers, but it certainly is a miraculous and over-powering piece and it received a cogent and urgent performance in Hrůša’s hands. Apparently at its German première, Konrad Adenauer hated it so much that he demanded it be removed from subsequent performances; now nearly 100 years later it is recognised as a masterpiece and sounds mainstream. The trombone and horn sections were magnificent, and Mike Reid (clarinet) stood out. The enlarged percussion section had visible fun with the piece, though the squeaky air-conditioning system also made an audible and unwelcome contribution at times.

By way almost of a restful interlude came Isabelle Faust’s intelligent, beautifully phrased and, at times, loving interpretation of the Schumann violin concerto, a work often overshadowed by other concertos. It does have some passages of ennui, especially in the first movement, but Faust held our attention throughout and her virtuosity in the final pages won over all listeners. We were rewarded with a Bach encore, part of a C minor Sonata. Faust played her “Sleeping Beauty” Strad (dating from 1704), an instrument which had lain dormant in a bank’s vault for decades. Hrůša confided in the after-concert talk that he had never conducted the concerto before; he showed complete command of the piece and conducted with sensitivity to the soloist.

Mackerras’ almost vintage recording of the Sinfonietta many years ago introduced me to the wondrous world of Janáček, for which I am eternally grateful. Two years ago Hrůša was the first winner of the “Charles Mackerras Prize”, awarded (only once every ten years) to the conductor who has most enriched Czech music.

The thrilling trumpet fanfare of the Sinfonietta (the piece calls for an additional twelve trumpeters – and an extra tuba) was lip-faultlessly played by what I took to be a group of Czech brass band players, in their white shirts, ties and peaked blue and gold caps. Perhaps, I thought, Hrůša had flown in the Brno Colliery Brass Band, or more likely from the Janáček Academy of Music and Performing Acts in Janáček’s and Hrůša’s native Brno. Hrůša shook their hands individually at the end of concert and spoke to them, I thought in Czech. I was utterly mistaken, they turned out – on enquiry – to be local extras.

The orchestra’s three flautists and piccolo stood out in the Sinfonietta as did the timpanist Christian Hartmann. There was clear empathy between orchestra and conductor which made me wonder whether, if the orchestra had only waited just a few more weeks, Hrůša might not have been a very strong contender for the post of new Chief Conductor, now taken by Paavo Järvi. We hope and trust that Hrůša returns to conduct the orchestra again with more Czech fare, perhaps Suk or Martinů, who appear to be two of his particular champions. Dare one hope for the Asrael Symphony?

John Rhodes

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