S&H Concert review
LSO Bohemian Spring
Janacek The Eternal Gospel; Dvorak Symphonic Variations & Te Deum, London Symphony Orchestra & Chorus/ Sir Colin Davis, Barbican 25 March 2001 (MB)
This concert in the LSO's Bohemian Spring series came close to illustrating the problems of conceptual programming. A mixed bag of sweets were on offer as the concert veered from the genius of Janacek's The Eternal Gospel to the dreariness of Dvorak's setting of the Latin Te Deum. It left the impression that someone had raided the bag and left crumbs.
The artistry (at least from the orchestra) was, as ever, of the highest order and nowhere was the LSO finer than in Dvorak's Symphonic Variations. Here Davis secured playing of extraordinary refinement with balletic strings and punchy brass giving genuine buoyancy to the quirky rhythms. Each variation moved seamlessly into the next like a finely stitched cloth. From the brilliant running figures of the 5th, the vivace springiness of the 10th, the mysterious beauty of the 14th to the Italiante sentimentality of the 25th the individuality of the variations was always distinctively played. The fugue and coda were justly exhilarating but how typical of Dvorak to end the work on single note trumpet and drum statements!
Janacek's Eternal Gospel is a largely unfamiliar work - and as if to emphasise this only one recording Ultraphon UP 0011-2-231 (of it is currently in the catalogue (albeit an outstanding one ). It is, however, a powerful, almost operatic piece, distinctive of its pre-World War I period, and deserves much greater exposure than it currently gets. It received a good, if not outstanding, performance under Davis.
Comparing this live performance with that single recording (which is authentically Czech) highlighted the problems of the LSO chorus in Czech music: they were largely under-powered, their diction lazily articulated and the drama studied rather than spontaneous. Vladimir Dolazel, who sings on the CD, is visionary and heartrending. The voice is an outstanding one, beautifully layered with tone and colour and his diction was as clear as glass. The long third movement, with a lament as striking as the Field of the Dead from Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky, was beautifully drawn but the soprano, Andrea Dankova, was too slight of voice to do justice to the sonorous lyricism of the poetry. It was certainly worth hearing this small masterpiece but I was left largely unmoved by the performance which proved a little disappointing.
Taras Bulba was given wit by Davis and the LSO but it is a shockingly prosaic work. Dvorak's Te Deum, glitzy and brash, is just dreadful music. The LSO chorus was, again, largely lost in the 'drama' of the piece, and Alastair Miles seemed uninvolved. It was instantly forgettable.
This concert promised much but delivered little. A depressing evening, I'm afraid.
Janacek Mass in Eb; Eben Te Deum; Zelenka Laudate Dominum; Dvorak Choruses; Novak Poems & Martinu Czech Madrigals London Symphony Chorus/Stephen Westrop with Stephen Disley (organ) Barbican, London 8 April 2001 (PGW)
This was a peculiar, broken-backed sort of a concert, with a programme was interesting enough to frighten away the LSO audience - only the stalls were open, and those far from filled. The first half, sung in Latin with the five loud speakers belonging to the lack-lustre electronic organ muffled behind the singers, was disappointing.
The LSO chorus, which had contributed with such distinction to recent concerts with Sir Colin Davis (they had been replaced by the LPO Choir with the LSO earlier in the week) were not up to the virtuoso demands of the Zelenka. The tenors were particularly weak - a problem for many choirs - nor were the soloists up to their spots of exposure and, potentially, brief glory. There was little sense of rhythmic pointing nor was clear articulation achieved by singers or organ under the direction of Westrop and Disley. There seemed to have been a strong case for a little professional stiffening for such an auspicious occasion.
The accompaniment for the rather austere early Janacek (an interesting rarity, well worth exploring further on another occasion) was subfusc, with seemingly no suitable choices to be disovered in the instrument's registrations, and the whole thing seemed to be taking place in the wrong venue - St Giles Church, across the Barbican lake, would have been preferable. The Petr Eben piece too gave hints of a worthwhile setting of its text, a gesture of 'elation and thanksgiving' at the end of Communist subjugation.
After the interval it appeared as if everyone had enjoyed a glass of wine together. It all sounded better rehearsed and far more confident. They sang with style in Dvorak and (so far as I could guess) in creditable Czech, and they coped well with the more chromatic Novak. And to finish, they really let their hair down for Martinu's Czech Madrigals (in English!) earning a well-deserved encore of The Witch.
Peter Grahame Woolf
SUK Asrael Symphony DVORAK Cello Concerto in B minor National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain/Belohlavek with Lynn Harrell The Barbican, London 10 April 2001
Concerts by the NYO are always special occasions and after the interval their participation in the Barbican's Bohemian Spring series one caught fire with a comprehensive account of the great tragic symphony by Dvorak's son-in-law Josef Suk ((1874-1935).
Before the concert I joined a reception for proud NYO parents (I was one of those, many years ago) who had contributed with their children's fees about a quarter of the substantial cost of the hard-worked and disciplined course - the players (12-19, average 16) had rehearsed (sectionals and full) for 8 hours/day, weekends included, alongside preparation for GCSE's & A levels exams in quiet study rooms on top! The members themselves have also assisted their always financially precarious orchestra by fundraising themselves, their efforts matched by other sponsors.
The ethos of the NYO is still based closely upon the vision of Dame Ruth Railton, who died in February. Newly created year by year (no security of tenure - each member has to re-audition) the NYO rebuilds itself annually by 'collective discipline and self-discipline'. Every musician is listed in the programme, which becomes a treasured souvenir for those who do not aspire to be professional musicians and a prestigious entry for every member's CV. The repertoire is generally for full orchestra, which makes a fine sight, uniformed and packing the available stage space.
Composition of the Asrael Symphony was prompted by Dvorak's death in 1904, compounded by the loss of his young wife a year later, after which Suk abandoned plans for a fast finale and added instead two adagios, completing this musical testimony in 1906 'to the noble memory of Dvorak & Otylka'. Suk's idiom is personal, with heightened chromaticism which must make difficulties for young players, but these were not evident. The ever-popular and regularly performed concerto, a miracle of concertante composition technique which earned admiration tinged with envy from Brahms, had received before the interval a sound, but unmemorable, performance, with the orchestral accompaniment (based on 10 double basses) sometimes over-weighted and woodwind solos insufficiently characterised, nor did Harrell lift his contribution to the heights this wonderful concerto often reaches in concert and on record, engaging with traces called up from the listeners' memories.
It seemed that more preparation time during the orchestra's residential week had, understandably, been allotted to Suk. The well-tuned strings produced a rich, full tone with confident unanimity in arco and pizzicato. The brass choir was commendably secure, never a cracked note even from the perilous horns. The woodwind solos were characterful and bore quite a lot of the expressive brunt. The first movement of Asrael (the biblical Angel of Death) set the tragic scene and led to a second, which developed into an intense funeral march. Next a scherzo with dazzling orchestration, its mastery bringing Mahler to mind, as indeed did so much of this powerful semi-programmatic symphony. The finale is a complex construction with a grief stricken opening, through grotesqueries in the middle, through to a quiet, comforting coda. Under Jiri Belohlavek's committed and impassioned direction its 55 minutes were not one too long, and this was therefore one of the most notable and valuable contributions to the Barbican's Bohemian Spring.
One pondered the vagaries of fashion which have now canonised the 9 or 10 each Mahler & Bruckner symphonies (both composers were rarely played in UK in my younger days, and many of their major works still unknown) but has left Suk outside; perhaps producing one great symphony is considered not enough for these days of complete cycles and 'integrale' CD boxes?
Peter Grahame Woolf
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