United Kingdom Janáček, Smetana, Szymanowski and Eötvös: Tasmin Little (violin), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Edward Gardner (conductor), Barbican Hall, Barbican Centre, London, 7.1.2017. (AS)
Janáček – Overture – Jealousy; Taras Bulba
Smetana – Má Vlast – ‘Vltava’, ‘Sárka’
Szymanowski – Violin Concerto No. 2, Op. 61
Eötvös – The Gliding of the Eagle in the Skies
Janáček’s Jealousy began life as the prelude to his opera Jenůfa. He decided to discard it, but allowed it to survive as a separate concert piece. A footnote to the informative programme note told us that the version to be performed was a reconstruction of the composer’s original version by Sir Charles Mackerras. Why this was undertaken and how the reconstruction differs from the original was not revealed: nor is this information readily available on the internet, though of course an explanation must exist in print somewhere and will be known by Janáček scholars. The piece we heard, which under its new title still obviously reflects a major emotional component of Janáček’s opera, duly possesses a wild, disturbing nature which was well brought out by Gardner and the BBCSO.
After this somewhat explosive opening, the opening calm of Smetana’s ‘Vltava’ from his five-part cycle Má Vlast provided a neat contrast. Gardner gave a lovely performance of this piece, light in rhythm, gently flowing and with some deliciously charming inflections of phrase. It was good, too, to hear one of the less well-known pieces in the cycle, ‘Sárka’. There are some less than inspired moments in Má Vlast as a whole, but ’Sárka’, with its potent and stormy subject matter of a wronged woman seeking to take revenge on the male sex stands up well to the much better-known evocation of the River Vltava. Here again Gardner and the orchestra pulled out all the stops in a virile, passionate reading of the piece.
Tasmin Little is now something of a veteran of the concert hall, but in Szymanowski’s demanding Second Violin Concerto she proved once again that her skill and artistry stand up well to that of the numerous young violinists who continue to arrive on the scene. She gave an exemplary reading of this work, one that was ardent, intense and highly expressive, and which typically possessed a strong, open sense of communication with her audience. Gardner and the orchestra gave her ideally strong support.
After the interval we heard the first UK performance of Peter Eötvös’s The Gliding of the Eagle in the Skies, written in 2011 for the Basque National Orchestra and revised in 2015. A Basque folk tune heard by Eötvös evoked an image of an eagle gliding high in the skies, and the composer also became interested in using Basque percussion instruments. In his score Eötvös duly uses a battery of items banged and shaken, including two cajóns, a box-like instrument (actually originating in Peru), whose operator sat at the front of the orchestra. Despite the percussive sounds, and despite the fact that the composer was a disciple of Boulez and Stockhausen, the piece itself is quite benign, very tonal in nature and easy on the ear. Here is apparently another case of a previous champion of the avant-garde whose composing art has become softer through the passage of time.
Taras Bulba should have provided a fitting climax to this concert, but unfortunately Gardner’s performance fell short of the ideal. In the score’s quicker passages he brought plenty of vigour, but the playing lacked the intense, ecstatic, wild nature of the composer’s inspiration. And to put it simply, the slow parts were too slow and lacked tension. There was no seething, throbbing undercurrent, no Slavic fervour, no ebb and flow of emotional feeling. It was rather like somebody reading a script in a language that was not the speaker’s own tongue: accomplished, accurate – the orchestral playing was certainly very good – but unidiomatic in style and nature.