United Kingdom 2017 BBC PROMS 56 – Smetana, Martinů, Dvořák, Janáček and Suk: Svatopluk Sem (baritone); BBC Singers (mens’ voices), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Jakub Hrůša (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 27.8.2017. (AS)
Traditional – Hussite Chorale, ‘You Who Are Warriors of God’
Smetana – Má Vlast – ‘Tábor’; ‘Blaník’
Martinů – Field Mass
Dvořák – Hussite Overture, Op. 67
Janáček – The Excursions of Mr Brouček – ‘Song of the Hussites’
Suk – Prague
Here was a most enterprising programme of Czech music, most of it rarely performed, including three first Prom performances, namely the original Hussite Chorale, the Janáček and the Suk.
The Hussite Chorale, vigorously sung by the men of the BBC Singers at the start of the concert, was the germ of the programme, for it is quoted in all the works played except the Martinů. Without a break we then heard ‘Tábor’ and ‘Blaník’ from Má Vlast, less familiar than the well-known ‘Vltava’ or ‘From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields’. At once Jakub Hrůša impressed with the vigour and ardour of his conducting: his style, in turn declamatory and fiery in nature, was very much in the Czech tradition of Talich and Kubelík.
Martinů’s Field Mass is an interesting but curious work. Written in 1939 in reaction to the German occupation of Czechoslovakia and originally for open-air performance by the Free Czechoslovak Army, it is not unnaturally written for male voices only, with a baritone soloist and an assortment of wind and percussion instruments. But although it might have been practicable for the harmonium to play its part in outdoor performance, the inclusion of a piano must surely have presented logistical difficulties. Heard in the safety of the Albert Hall, both of these instruments added intriguing colour to the varying sounds of the chorus and instrumental combinations. The work is not a setting of the traditional Mass text, but begins with the Lord’s Prayer followed by various excerpts from the Book of Psalms. The baritone soloist is given plenty of scope for expressive singing, and Svatopluk Sem took his opportunities with flair and fine tonal sonority.
Dvořák’s Hussite Overture has only been played once before at a Prom, and this is perhaps understandable. It was written in 1883 for the re-opening of the National Theatre in Prague, and its tub-thumping nationalist content doesn’t represent the composer at his best. The brief choral excerpt from Janáček’s opera The Excursions of Mr Brouček, on the other hand, provided a tantalising glimpse into an intriguing work of which one wanted to hear a bit more.
For this listener, however, the revelation of the evening was Suk’s quite lengthy tone poem Prague. Written in the wake of his father-in-law Dvořák’s death in 1904, it is another nationalistic piece whose main inspiration is a poem by Svatopluk Čech concerning the defence of Prague against the Hussites. But it encompasses a far wider emotional content than that of conflict in battle, and its variety of mood, its quality of invention and its skilful placing and sequencing of episodes make it surely a most unduly neglected composition. Certainly, the Prom audience seemed to take a particular liking to it.