Jurowski and London Philharmonic in an Intriguing Czech Programme

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Janacek, Dvorak and Suk: Martin Helmchen (piano), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 2.5.2012 (GDn)

Janacek (arr. Talich): Suite, The Cunning Little Vixen
: Piano Concerto
: Symphonic Poem, Ripening

You couldn’t accuse Vladimir Jurowski of taking an easy route through the Czech repertoire. The Cunning Little Vixen Suite, quirky and esoteric as it is, was undoubtedly the most audience-friendly work on this evening’s programme. That was followed by Dvorak’s fascinating, but long and involved, Piano Concerto, and Suk’s equally intense and even lengthier Ripening. The results were richly rewarding, but almost infinite resources of stamina were required from all concerned.

The London Philharmonic is going to know Janacek’s Little Vixen very well by the end of the summer. Talich’s suite from the opera opened this concert; they are performing extracts from the opera at a children’s event next week; and then they are doing a run of the full opera at Glyndebourne. Naturally, the orchestra is equal to the many unusual challenges that Janacek sets. Jurowski is not as fluid with this music as Mackerras, or even Rattle, but he has an equal interest in the strange textures that Janacek draws from the orchestra. Bringing the band up onto the stage gives the audience the chance to see the bizarre groupings that the composer brings together. It also makes the balance slightly less string-focussed than in the theatre. But the results remain as beguiling and as charmingly rustic as ever.

Dvorak’s Piano Concerto is a difficult piece on every level. It shares much with the concertos of Beethoven and Brahms, including their faults. Like those great Germans, Dvorak puts down a wantonly un-pianistic piano part, and then accompanies it with a symphony orchestra, who for the most part seem to be playing a symphony. But there is much to commend the piece, not least the slow movement, which contains many moments of supreme beauty. And the orchestration, while it is occasionally heavy, makes excellent use of the ensemble.

Martin Helmchen has made the concerto one of his calling cards in the few years that he has been on the international scene. Technically, he breezes through the piece, which, considering the sheer quantity of notes in the piano part, is a considerable achievement. He also has a very lyrical and romantic mode of expression, which allows the quieter music really to flow. But something is missing, and I think it is to do with the musical rhetoric behind the piece. Very often, Dvorak relies on a theatrical flourish from the pianist to make a structurally significant statement, such as the entrance of the second subject in the slow movement, or the piano solo at the opening of the finale – taken straight out of Brahms’ First Concerto. Helmchen’s refinement and sophistication stand in the way of these grand gestures. Or perhaps it’s just a volume issue, but for the size of the orchestra Dvorak sets him up against, he needs to hit those keys harder, especially in the finale.

When a piece has a name as unmemorable as Ripening, it’s a fair bet that the music itself is also going to fade from the memory quite fast. This is one of Suk’s symphonic poems that followed his more significant (and memorable) Asrael. Like its predecessor, it is a huge orchestral work, musically complex and intensely dramatic. Suk’s approach to orchestration here seems to be to have every musician playing almost all of the time. Even the quiet coda involves the whole orchestra playing quietly. Nevertheless, the orchestration is always interesting, and a good performance like this one can bring out the continuous variety in these tutti textures. The bass trombone, for example, has a fabulous part, as does the tuba. And the orchestral piano is put to a variety of interesting uses. An offstage choir is brought in towards the end, as is a group of off-stage trumpets, but both are woefully underused, and it was hard to tell why they were there.

More clarity from the acoustic might have helped to bring out these details, but Jurowski and his forces did everything in their power to give this work its due. Like the pieces in the first half, it is not the sort of score that allows an orchestra to show off without having to work, but the preparation and the musical sensitivity here from everybody helped to bring this music to life. Do these works deserve their obscurity? Perhaps, but they’re worth hearing every once in a while, especially when performed to this standard.

Gavin Dixon