Switzerland Smetana, Martinů, Dvořák: Tonhalle Orchestra / Krzysztof Urbański (conductor), Sol Gabetta (cello), Tonhalle Maag Zurich 6.5.2018. (JR)
Smetana – From Ma Vlast, ‘The Moldau’ (‘Vltava’)
Martinů – Cello Concerto No.1
Dvořák – Symphony No.9 ‘From the New World’ op.95
Smetana’s ‘The Moldau’, the best known of all the parts of his great symphonic poem, made an ideal curtain raiser to this concert on a balmy May afternoon. The audience’s attention was seized from the very outset by the pair of captivating flutes evoking the source of this major Czech river, known as the Czech ‘national river’. As it progressed down onto the plain, I was reminded of Wagner’s Rhine Music for Siegfried, but soon the music was tumbling raucously over some rapids before majestically entering Prague. (Soon after that, the river – the longest in the Czech Republic – flows into the even mightier Elbe, as fellow cartophiles [map-lovers] will know). Krzysztof Urbański swirled balletically, with raised heels and pointed toes, in a valiant and largely successful attempt to dispel some distant (but vivid) remembrances of having oneself slaughtered the piece in school orchestra.
Martinů’s first Cello Concerto (he wrote a Second, even less frequently performed than his First) was not a work with which I was familiar. Urbański and Gabetta have recorded it, a few years ago, with the Berlin Philharmonic. Written around the time of the Wall Street Crash, it is not a jolly work though its rhythmic inflections are interesting. Martinů has long had to live in the shadow of his great compatriots, Dvořák, Smetana and Janáček; his multi-faceted and not easily approachable works are probably the cause, possibly also his disturbed relationship with his homeland. He lived in exile for many years, finally ending up near Basel in Switzerland (where, incidentally, Gabetta now lives – hence her interest, possibly). Martinů is best known for his operas, the Greek Passion, Julietta, and his oratorio The Epic of Gilgamesh, all of interest but none of which finding general favour.
Martinů was never entirely happy with his first Cello Concerto. It grew from a chamber concerto into a fully-fledged orchestral piece: we heard the third version written in 1955 a few years before his death. It was last played in Zurich nearly 50 years ago, which says much. It is too early to say the work is enjoying a genuine revival; Gabetta is championing it wherever and whenever she can, she is visibly and audibly committed to the work. She will play it again at the Lucerne Festival with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra under François-Xavier Roth (August 28th). Gabetta has recently learned the piece by heart (no mean feat) which allows her greater freedom of expression. Whilst the main melody (such as it is) of the opening movement is deceptively simple, the variations are fiendish but no hurdle to her courage and virtuosity: she attacked the work’s complexities with relish. Urbański was a sensitive accompanist throughout. The heart of the concerto is the heart-rending slow movement, beautifully delivered with Gabetta’s rich, sensuous tone. The final movement is anything but cheerful but as though to compensate for its lack of discernible melody Gabetta (and the full orchestra) played, by way of rather unusual encore, Lensky’s aria from Eugene Onegin.
After the interval, a meticulous and highly nuanced performance of the New World Symphony entranced the audience. Urbański conducted the exciting opening movement with swirling arm movements as though painting a giant canvas. The second movement with its homely melody for cor anglais (perfectly rendered by Martin Frutiger) was not overly sentimental; the strings were incredibly delicate as accompanists. The capacity audience lapped it all up and the applause after the work’s grand ending was longer than I have heard at the Tonhalle for quite some time. The orchestra’s Intendantin revealed after the concert that both Urbański and Gabetta have gladly pledged to come back, probably the season after next, but she would not disclose their choice of works. We all look forward very much to their return.