S&H Concert review

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Jirí Belohlávek Truls Mork (cello) Symphony Hall, Birmingham 29th May  Janácek From the House of the Dead-Suite (Arr. Frantisek Jílek) Dvorák Cello Concerto No. 2 in B Minor Op. 104 Janácek Taras Bulba.

By CBSO standards it was a relatively sparse audience (possibly a result of Bank Holiday Monday on the preceding day) which was in attendance for this all Czech programme with guest conductor, Jirí Belohlávek.

The Brno based conductor Frantisek Jílek arranged his suite From the House of the Dead in the 1970's, some forty or so years after Václav Talich arranged his popular suite from the composer's earlier opera, The Cunning Little Vixen. The latter work has become well known, Jírek's suite less so, although Belohlávek recorded it with the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra in 1999 (Supraphon SU 343602 031). Belohlávek drew some wonderfully sonorous sounds from the orchestra throughout the performance with the brass particularly resplendent, producing a large, warm sound that was never forced. The first of the three movements uses material from the introduction to the opera and reflects the hard labour of the convicts in the Siberian prison camp, dark, even grim in tone, the score includes the clanging of their prison chains. In the second movement the mood changes immediately to the scene of the prisoner's own theatrical entertainment, the music reflecting their rough humour and being well captured by the orchestra with fine inner detail from the woodwind and ample boisterous character. Belohlávek is rarely overstated in his gestures yet once again in the final movement, based largely on the final scene of the opera in which the released prisoners bid their farewells, he clearly revelled in the rich scoring and sound of the orchestra with a brilliantly festive conclusion to the work.

I suspect that many of the audience were in the hall primarily for the Dvorák Cello Concerto and Truls Mork received a warm reception. He responded with a performance of exceptional clarity, devoid of over sentimentality and supported by carefully controlled accompaniment. After the long orchestral introduction the first cello entry had an intensity which was immediately striking and Mork managed to maintain this intensity throughout, combining it with a tenderness in the quieter moments which was both poignant and moving. Indeed it was in the central Adagio ma non troppo that he was arguably at his most impressive, demonstrating a finely graded rubato with magically hushed playing whilst maintaining beautiful tone. With the exception of a slight lack of co-ordination between soloist and orchestra at the very opening, the final Allegro moderato possessed plenty of character, there being a sense that the orchestra were responding positively to both the soloist and Belohlávek's direction. The audience reacted enthusiastically to the performance and deservedly so.

Strangely, after a highly committed performance of the Dvorák, Taras Bulba came as something of a disappointment. From the very opening of The death of Andriy the orchestra seemed to have lost the purpose which came through in the earlier Janácek work, the sense of drama in the music suffering as a result. The first movement is dominated by Andriy's love affair with a Polish girl and there were some moments of real beauty but overall the playing, for all its technical precision, did not quite convince. The same was true of the central movement, The death of Ostap, although in the final and most substantial movement, The prophecy and death of Taras Bulba, there was noticeably more potency, with the Polish "Krakowiak" dance particularly effective. Once again the brass produced a glorious sound, the horn and trumpet chords part way through, set against organ and pizzicato strings, sounding majestic in the Symphony Hall acoustic.

A mixed concert then but memorable for the inspired playing of Truls Mork and Jílek's excellent Janácek arrangement which it would be good to hear more of in the concert hall.

Christopher Thomas

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