Dvořák and Suk Conclude Bohemian Legends Series

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Dvořák, Suk: Truls Mørk (cello),  Philharmonia Orchestra  /  Jakub  Hrůša (conductor),  Royal Festival Hall, London,  15.5.2014. (GD)

Dvořák: Cello Concerto No. 2 in B minor, Op. 104
Suk: Asrael Symphony in C minor, Op. 27


 This was the last concert in the orchestra’s brief ‘Bohemian Legends’ series, with the young Czech conductor Jakub  Hrůša. The  Dvořák,concerto with its double exposition opened in a rather bland manner: the woodwind figure here could have been phrased with more conviction. The first orchestral tutti sounded quite impressive but the over-prominent brass should sound more integrated; still clearly defined but not obliterating other orchestra details as was  the case here and throughout tutti moments of the whole concerto. The descending recitative like figure in the basses, just after the first orchestral tutti, and developing in the woodwinds into a recurring lyrical theme, sounded rather smudged, lacking any clear delineation. I played recently an old NBC  (1945) Toscanini broadcast of the concerto with cellist Edmund Kurtz, Toscanini was not particularly noted as a  Dvořák conductor, but how arresting and eloquently phrased the same passage sounded with him! Truls Mørk has played this concerto many times, with at least one fine recording. He played well throughout. His rather objective manner eschewing too much over-subjectivism was welcome. But his playing lacked a certain vibrancy and finesse as heard with other contemporary cellists such as: Gautier Capuçon and Jean-Guihen Queyras. This might have something to do with a certain lack of rapport/dialogue between soloist and conductor. Donald Tovey emphasises the importance of dialogue, especially in the marvellous interweaving of myriad song-like themes developing from the opening thematic material, especially the wonderful horn melody which initiates the second subject. Here I had the impression that the soloist wanted to move on more, but was pulled back by the conductor’s habit of slowing down  especially in lyrical passages. Nowhere in the score does the composer as much as suggest any kind slowing down; not even a poco rit! The wonderful contrast at the end of the orchestral development section, with its superbly arresting transition into a distant A flat minor, failed to register that trenchant sense of dramatic contrast. The triumphant coda was delivered in a rather four-square fashion with dull rhythms and a good deal of rough ensemble particularly in the the horns and woodwind.

One commentator has described the second movement Adagio a non troppo  as ‘a romance full of fin de siècle charm. I would imagine that the great critic and poet of modernity Walter Benjamin would have found this phrase peculiarly problematic. But I can kind of see what is meant particularly by ‘charm.’ I would also add that this music communicates an element of rustic innocence, especially in the beautiful woodwind writing. Mørk managed the movements central variations, quite well, particularly fine was  the final quasi cadenza in dialogue with the orchestra. Soloist and conductor were together, but again, I didn’t have the impression of any kind of engaged dialogue. Apart from some quite frequent problems of rhythmic articulation and ensemble in the orchestra the rondo finale, with its brilliant  oscillations around B major and B minor,  went  well, with Mørk playing what is written, avoiding any kind of rhetorical excess, not unknown in performances of this concerto.  Hrůša seemed to translate the Allegro vivo in the coda as a Presto, thereby rushing the two closing abrubt ff chords and obscuring their distinct and powerful effect, so clearly indicated in the score.

Before attending the concert I listened to the wonderful performance of the concerto from the young Rostropovich and the Czech Philharmonic under the great Talich. Recorded in Prague in 1952. Here we find an unsurpassed dialogue between soloist and conductor. This is still a performance by which all other performances, recordings should be evaluated.

Hrůša conducted a dramatically charged performance of Suk’s monumental ‘Asrael’ Symphony. But throughout I frequently had the impression that more rehearsal time would have produced more convincing results. Also there was a kind of blandness in terms of phrasing and articulation of transistions. This blandness was particularly apparent in the Adagio fourth movement, a heartfelt lyrical love song and threnody dedicated to the memory of Otilka, Dvořák’s daughter, who also became Suk’s wife. This lyrical incantation encompasses a range of tonal/harmonic  modulations , related motivically to the modal structure of the whole symphony. It is also embellished by elaborate figurations for solo violin. Here everything was simply too loud! There was no real sense of pp, the tutti passages for strings and woodwind producing an overall ‘glaring’ tone rather than one that caresses each melodic line and dynamic gradation.  Three months before Otilka’s death  in 1904 Dvorak himself died, and the allegory of ‘Asrael’ the Angel of Death (from the Islamic faith) who delivers redemption from death to angelic love, can be seen as the symphonic foundation for a Requiem recast into symphonic form for Suk’s mentor and father-in law. Musically and thematically the tritonal death motive pervades the whole symphony. It is most dramatically intoned in the the first movement Andante sostenuto, from a series of E major variations to its C minor unleashing of grim power punctuated by a four-note ostinato figure on bass drum. This sounded powerful, more fff than the f marked. But I didn’t have the sense of it emerging from the  turbulent structure of the movement, as heard so trenchantly with conductors like Talich and Kubelik. Here it was projected onto the music from without,. so to speak,  losing its crucial sense of triumphant menace, And on several occasions the conductor added a few percussive effects of his own from his  habit of jumping and stamping at moments where his excitation took over. The only reaction  these kind of conductorial histrionics achieve is acute distraction/embarrassment from the orchestra.    Also this movement lacked a distinct sense of contrast between the lyrical and the dramatic; everything seemed to be on the same rather aggressive tonal level.

As already mentioned,  Hrůša has a tendency to slow down for lyrical passages. This was especially the case in the D flat major second movement Andante where the ‘sighing’ figure in the strings drooped rather than sighed. Also here there was a tendency towards sentimentality with far too much vibrato. The finale Adagio e maestoso, with its wonderful transformations from the opening tritonal drama (ascending major keys of C, D, E) to the redemptive calm of the coda, intoned by the fate motive in C major chorale mode, sounded more like a ‘play through’, rather than invoking the mood of of dramatic transfiguration and ethereal resolution, conveyed so beautifully by the likes of Talich and Kubelik. Throughout there were frequent ensemble and tuning problems especially with the woodwind,  horns, and strings. This was particularly the case in the third movement with its contrasting dynamics and sharp cross-rhythms. Why did Mr Hrůša not deploy antiphonal violins? Talich, Kubelik, and more recently the late Charles Mackerras, always divided their first and second violins. Dvořák and Suk expected it. The many intricacies of tritonal harmony and complex inner counterpoint, especially in the ‘Asrael’ Symphony,  are obscured or lost without this crucial orchestral deployment.

Geoff Diggines

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