United States Janáček, Beethoven, Dvořák: André Watts (piano), Philadelphia Orchestra, Jakub Hrůša (conductor), Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 15.11.2014 (BJ)
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major
Dvořák: Symphony No. 8 in G major
At the age of 33, Jakub Hrůša has established beyond doubt his right to be regarded as one of the most promising conductors anywhere in the world. Having already spent periods as associate conductor of the Czech Philharmonic and of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, and as principal guest conductor of the Prague Philharmonia, he was appointed chief conductor of the last-named ensemble in 2008. He is also the Chief Conductor of the Bohuslav Martinů Philharmonic in Zlín, and became music director of Glyndebourne on Tour in 2010. Jirí Belohlávek was one of Hrůša’s teachers at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague. He still considers the older conductor a mentor, so it was not surprising that the main theme of the Dvořák Eighth Symphony’s first movement should have evoked a vivid association with the way Belohlávek is accustomed to realizing its rich cello and horn sonorities.
This proved to be only the beginning of a performance that did full justice to the orchestral invention and structural ingenuity of a work that may not be the composer’s greatest symphony, yet rivals the more imposing Nos. 6 and 7, not to mention the “New World,” in piquant melodic, rhythmic, and instrumental ideas. Witness the oboe theme of the trio section in the third movement, ravishingly played by Richard Woodhams. Is it fanciful to find an echo of Figaro’s “Se vuol ballare” in the way this beautiful tune is rhythmically transformed in the movement’s coda? Dvořák, after all, played the viola in Prague’s opera orchestra for several years, and may be presumed to have encountered Mozart’s opera in his playing capacity.
With an irresistible lilt from beginning to end, and skilled contributions from all the sections of the orchestra, this was a performance of the symphony that exuded the most mature mastery. It was an appropriate conclusion for an evening that began with Jealousy, the characteristically original and personal piece that Janáček detached from its intended position as the overture to his opera Jenůfa and subsequently approved as a stand-alone orchestral work.
The two Czech works book-ended a performance of Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto in which André Watts offered his familiar and still compelling account of the solo part. Over the course of more than 40 years, I have heard Watts in many contexts and many different areas of the repertoire, and never failed to admire him. He may be more inspired on some occasions than on others, but even when his performance is less than revelatory, the sheer sense he conveys of being comfortably at home in the music always carries conviction. Here, too, conductor and orchestra provided prodigies of artistry to match their soloist’s accomplished playing.