Prom 15, 2009

BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jiří Bělohlávek

Bedrich Smetana: The Bartered Bride overture

There was a time when this piece was the constant fare of concerts and recordings but it has gone from the hall and studio largely and so it was a welcome chance to hear it in the flesh last night.

There are so many recordings that its hard perhaps to find ways of doing it differently – Bělohlávek adopted Route One to interpretative authority – he set a ferociously quick tempo. Strings were sawing away for all their worth through Smetana’s fugal entries. – it’s a high risk endeavour but that was a feature of much of the concert. That said it was very effective and a cracking way to start the programme – warhorse or not.

Bela Bartok: Dance Suite (1923)

For the record Bělohlávek doesn’t lack aplomb under pressure and this piece brought out the best in both orchestra and conductor in a technical and emotional tour de force. The orchestra respond very well to their chief conductor – attentive to the urgent baton movements and ad hoc balancing. He swerves and dives with the music beneath his mop of silver hair but never unswerving in his clear beat. The technical delivery was of the highest order numerous examples of very beautiful delivery in the bustle of this piece - one could highlight individual woodwind players, like Alison Teale on Cor Anglais, who combine a great playing with an individual touch which is a feature of the great wind sections from Beecham's RPO to Karajan's teams at the Philharmonia & BPO.

The playing was of the highest order with moments of great beauty. The reduced strings in the first dance were exquisite – the full colour of Bartok’s exotic harmonies shone brightly. Also, & thankfully, the trombone slides in the second dance weren’t spotlit aurally like some freakish circus acts. The brass chorale in the fifth dance was glorious - reminiscent of the New York Phil in Boulez's awesome recording of the Concerto for Orchestra. In fact time and time again I was put in mind of that piece as this performance went on - and not in any lesser sense. The Dance Suite struck me as the ideal companion.

Bělohlávek tamed the vicious complexity with dance rhythms elucidated to reveal beauty and drama. It was an unexpected highlight.

Bohuslav Martinů : Concerto for Two Pianos

Soloists: Jaroslava Pěchočová, Václav Mácha pianos

It was marvelous to hear this fresh work at the Proms. It wasn't familiar to me and I guess a large proportion of the audience were in the same boat. Without the distraction of imprinted recordings it was a pleasant changed just be able to concentrate on exploring Martinu's sound world. Structurally this concerto presents a real challenge in unpicking the lines -some of which separate the solists through virtuositic demands and some of which bring them together with the orchestra as a unified ensemble. The young soloists were superb. Bělohlávek was an ideal partner, and I dare say master, co-ordinating the orchestral elements with a steady hand but always sensitive to Martinu's habit of dropping sweetmeat after sweetmeat into the mix. The result is like a Christmas tree - the individual items come together and provide enjoyment through there multiplicity and lustre. And the result has depth because of Martinu's handsome ear for how to combine these details with taste.

The fast movement had all the usual momentum of a Martinu first movement - rather like surfing a wave that never breaks, it is best appreciated as a journey itself - not just a build-up to some froth at the end. I've never been especially attracted to the slow movements of Martinu's symphonies and so its not a surprise that the slow movement - though it had exquisite moments - didn't thrill me hugely. The last movement was a whirl of pianistic colour and sweep, with a characteristic piling on of harmonic and textural drama that the composer brings to so many of his works. It got huge applause and deservedly so - a rare gem.

Igor Stravinsky: Petrushka: Ballet Suite (1947 version)
From the start I thought it was clear that the conductor wasn't about to dally with some of the more colourful orchestration in this piece, nor was the result particularly balletic in vision. It was about keeping the music moving, presenting its many contrast and not dwelling on the exquisite detail - I get the impression Bělohlávek doesn't do dwelling on easy wins. The ballet's tableaux where presented in quick succession and I don't think I've heard it sound so matter of fact before. The playing was good but it almost sounded easy - at least compared with the Bartok. One consideration was that this was quite a long concert and perhaps Bělohlávek was conserving the orchestra for its marathon ahead. That said all the elements, colour, melody and drive were there and execution was impeccably tasteful.

Although the programme claims that the performance was of the complete ballet in its 1947 version, actually we only got the suite clipped of some of the most affecting parts of the story. But after such a colourful programme it was perhaps greedy to ask for a complete narrative too.

All in all this was a belter and a happy sign both conductor and orchestra can bring home the goods in this type of testing repertoire.


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