Bĕlohlávek and the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a Czech Programme – Janáček Steals the Show.

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Kadeřábek, Dvořák, Martinů, Janáček:Maxim Rysanov (viola), BBC Symphony Orchestra, Jiří Bĕlohlávek (conductor), 
Barbican Hall, London, 10.11.2011 (CG)

Jiří Kadeřábek: ‘C,’ BBC commission: World première
Dvořák: The Golden Spinning Wheel, op.109 (1896)
Martinů:  Rhapsody Concerto (1952)
Janáček: Taras Bulba – rhapsody for orchestra (1915-18)

Are you sitting comfortably?

“Jiří Kadeřábek sees the listener of his music as being ‘inside a geometric shape of many sides, a polyhedron, with mirrors reflecting every small line and direction.'” So commences the ludicrously pretentious programme note. And it goes on, and on, likening his music to the Cubist Picasso – “It’s as if the Women of Avignon were singing from each strange facet of their bodies. I think that’s the point: the deconstruction of linear association and the emphasis of purely structural particles.”

In fact what we got was a piece of mind-numbing banality. “C” consists of twiddles and scales in C major, with a couple of sections during which the brass players blow air, but no notes, through their instruments. If the composer, the BBC, or anyone else imagines that there’s a useful point in this nonsense, then it’s certainly lost on me. You might argue that it’s not the fault of the commissioners that Kadeřábek turned in a piece of abject rubbish, but they might have guessed; and that they make errors of judgement like this when there are umpteen British composers dying to have the opportunity of having their music played by a fine symphony orchestra beggars belief. What a dreadful waste, a thought also going through the minds of the orchestra who looked bored out of their minds and failed to applaud the composer as he stepped onto the platform.

Moving swiftly on, the next item in this all-Czech programme was the tone poem The Golden Spinning Wheel, which was one of several works which marked Dvořák’s move from the purely symphonic forms of his great idol, Brahms, into the more ‘progressive’ area of Liszt, who had already established the revolutionary idea of the tone poem. This was a big and controversial departure for a man nearing the end of his life, and the five tone poems composed between 1896 and 1897 contain some of the composer’s most imaginative and colourful music. The Golden Spinning Wheel is one of four based on the ballads of the Czech folklorist Karel Erben and contains elements of Bohemian folk music woven into a richly lyrical symphonic tapestry. There was some really lovely woodwind playing from the orchestra; Michael Cox’s flute was especially poignant, with Bĕlohlávek clearly revelling in every moment of it and bringing poise, charm, warmth and humanity to musicians and audience all too ready to involve themselves in some real music after the opening dud. What a shame, then, that the conductor had savagely cut the music; why? Important elements of the story were lost, and although this rarely heard piece may be quite an effort for an audience unfamiliar with it, a few extra minutes certainly wouldn’t have hurt.

Music by Martinù followed the interval in the shape of the seldom-performed Rhapsody Concerto, with Maxim Rysanov the full-toned soloist. Composed in America in 1952, the work harks back to Martinù’s homeland, with some of the melodic material reminding us strongly of Bohemian folk music and Dvořák. It is a predominantly sweetly lyrical work, relatively uncomplicated harmonically, and a far cry from Martinů’s famous Double Concerto for Two String orchestras Piano and Timpani, and other more dissonant works from the 30s; back then Martinù was flirting with expressionism, neo-classicism, and jazz, but by the 1950s the composer was in his sixties, weary and seriously homesick. If melody is to the fore, it does not mean that the music is rhythmically dull, especially in the last movement. Here Rysanov’s technique came to the fore with some extremely impressive finger and bow-work, and the BBC SO responded with equally impressive vigour.

But the highlight was still to come. With Taras Bulba, we were on a different planet. The bloodthirsty tale on which it is based tells of the Ukrainian warrior, Taras Bulba, and the attacks of the Poles. Remarkable, isn’t it, that at the time he wrote this work Janáček was a committed fan of everything Russian, believing that his own country would be protected and freed by the indomitable Russians. Whatever the rights and wrongs of Janáček ‘s political views, he certainly composed one of his most vivid masterpieces with Taras Bulba, and this extraordinary music was given a stupendous performance tonight. Janáček’s orchestration is so intensely personal, and so raw and ruggedly expressive – there’s absolutely nothing ordinary about it. There was especially gorgeous playing from Alison Teale (cor anglais), Richard Simpson (oboe) and Stephen Bryant (solo violin.) and the brass and percussion playing was as bright and incisive as you could possibly want. A fabulous performance of fabulous music.

If it hadn’t been for that awful first item, this would have been a completely enjoyable and even inspiring evening. What a shame, then, that the BBCSO’s Barbican concerts seem to be comparatively badly attended. The stalls were more or less full, but the balcony not even open. Why? The LSO consistently fills the same hall. Is it the often somewhat strange programme planning? Inadequate publicity? I search for answers. The BBCSO is a terrific orchestra and deserves to have the very strongest following, especially in the face of current budget reviews.

Christopher Gunning