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S & H Concert Review

Smetana, Dvorák Midori (violin); Philharmonia Orchestra/Jirí Belohlávek. Thursday, January 29th, 2004, Royal Festival Hall (CC)


Belohlávek’s sure way with the music of his homeland was already confirmed, if confirmation is needed, in his concert on January 20th. His quasi-miraculous rapport with the Philharmonia was once more on display here in a concert that included Dvorák’s great Violin Concerto.

I use the word ‘great’ on purpose. Interestingly, Vanda Prochazka in her programme notes refers to this as ‘one of his most popular works’, although its number of concert performances is effectively dwarfed by those of its sister piece, the Cello Concerto in B minor. While reviewing Akiko Suwanai’s recording of the Violin Concerto on Philips the true stature of this work became apparent to me (Colin Anderson in his ‘Recommended Recordings’ in the concert programme omitted Suwanai entirely; as he did Belohlávek’s own recording on Supraphon with Václav Hudecek, SU3187-2). The work does, though, need the finest of interpreters to bring it off, as structurally it is quirky, with severely curtailed recapitulative elements in the first movement and with all three movements of broadly the same length.

Midori’s performance of the Dvorák Sonatina for violin and piano at a Barbican recital in August 2002 had left a good impression. As a piece the Concerto probes significantly deeper, though. Initial impressions boded well. There seemed to be a new dynamic to Midori’s playing, with a very un-Japanese foregrounding of emotion. After Belohlávek’s warm orchestral opening, Midori entered within the style of a gypsy improvisation. Lines were lyrical and she is obviously and commendably not afraid of the piano/pianissimo end of the dynamic scale. Only one passage was on the literal side – the slow movement generally erased memories of this. Here Midori attempted to give us a natural lyrical outpouring, although a steely tinge to her tone at times came across as inappropriate and trills in particular could sound manufactured, as opposed to expressive. Tonal contrasts were sensitive, though, a bleached, white tone setting off the more vibrato-ed lines, yet an unappealing slithering down to her very last note spoiled things rather.

The orchestra was consistently excellent, however, Belohlávek highlighting the magnificence of Dvorák’s scoring (a passage of solo violin against unison horns in the first movement stood out). The Finale is Dvorák at his foot-tapping best – and how the winds danced to those rhythms! A pity Midori injected literalism to a suave contrasting idea, robbing it of its echt-Bohemian flavour. Midori has recorded this work on Sony SK44923, with Zubin Mehta conducting.

By beginning the concert with Smetana’s Overture to The Bartered Bride, Belohlávek ensured things got off to an effervescent start. The piece opened with a blaze of orchestral colour. The Philharmonia’s second violins were breathtaking in their articulation of the fugato subject, but it was the veritable explosion of furiant rhythms that made this irresistible. This was a seven-minute beacon of bright light and optimism, coloured only by the oboe’s rustic Bohemian pipings in a brief moment of reflection. Stunning.

Belohlávek’s Dvorák Seventh did not disappoint. The same balance of flow, lyricism and structure that he brought to the Ninth was there. Drama in the first movement came from Dvorák’s scoring (tremolandi, perfectly placed accents) rather than any indulgent tempi (it moved along, refusing to take the ‘maestoso’ as an excuse to linger). If there was some wonderful wind playing in the Poco adagio (notably from the clarinets), this remained, timbrally, anglicised Dvorák. However it was impossible not to be carried away by this blossoming of the composer’s imagination – just occasionally, though, one hankered after more depth from the lower strings. If the contrast of the brisk Scherzo was boldly made, it was certainly effective. But what was most memorable about this third movement was the disquiet Belohlávek evoked from the lower strings in the Trio, dark clouds that reappeared at the opening of the finale. Flutes tripping their way through Czech fields did their best to dispel these, but it was the dramatic unfolding that was the point here. A remarkable feat of interpretation coupled with its realisation in near-ideal performance, this Dvorák Seventh has to be one of the season’s highlights so far.

Colin Clarke




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