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Martinů: Memorial to Lidice; Fantaisies symphoniques (Symphony No. 6), Mozart: Requiem in D minor, K626 (compl. F.X. Süssmayr): Kate Royal (soprano), Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano), Robert Murray (tenor), Matthew Rose (bass), BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra, Jiří Bělohlávek, Barbican, 12 March 2005 (TJH)

It has been called ‘the hardest job in music’ and not without justification. The Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra has to be all things to all people: a shameless populist, a fearless advocate of contemporary music, a darling of the critics and a hard-headed leader to an orchestra prodigious in talent but often wilful in attitude. As the so-called ‘backbone of the Proms’, the BBCSO must be capable of tackling everything from hackneyed classics to world premieres, often with very little rehearsal time and in addition to a regular season of concerts, touring and studio work. The task of leading such an ensemble is clearly an unenviable one, as evidenced by the number of leading conductors who have politely-but-firmly turned down the opportunity; but after a protracted wait, it was finally announced last month that the next man brave enough to take on the challenge (after the unlamented departure of Leonard Slatkin last September) would be the talented Czech conductor Jiří Bělohlávek. Though no stranger to the BBCSO, having been its Principal Guest Conductor from 1995 to 2000, it nonetheless remains to be seen how well Bělohlávek will cope with the unique demands of a full Proms season.

So it was no surprise to see a packed Barbican on Saturday for Bělohlávek’s first concert with the orchestra since his appointment was announced: indeed, the hall was pretty much packed to capacity with punters and pundits hoping to a catch a sneak preview of what can be expected when Bělohlávek takes up the position at the start of next year’s Proms. His programme – though scheduled months ago – seemed almost designed as a tantalising taster: two pieces by his beloved Martinů followed by Mozart’s sublime Requiem. Both composers featured prominently in Bělohlávek’s last visit to London – a Prom last year with his own Prague Philharmonia – so it seemed an appropriate way to reintroduce himself to London’s notoriously picky concert-going audience.

The good news is that the BBCSO clearly likes and respects Bělohlávek: their playing – often so lacklustre under Slatkin – was at times incendiary under their future Chief Conductor, the strings in particular unleashing a gloriously rich tone in the Memorial to Lidice which opened the concert. This piece, written by Martinů in 1942-43 in response to the Nazi massacre of an entire village in occupied Czechoslovakia, was given a searing, dramatic reading, evoking a real sense of defiance in the face of rabid inhumanity. The orchestra played as if their lives depended on it and the final, apocalyptic eruption quoting the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony had a powerful resonance; it was a moving, intense performance and certainly a far cry from the candyfloss which usually opens concerts these days.

The same inner conviction shone through in the performance of Martinů's Fantaisies symphoniques (known to everyone but the composer as the Sixth Symphony). The theme of remembrance was once again present in a haunting, recurring motif taken from Dvorák’s Requiem, but this was anything but a solemn ceremonial piece. In the jittery, busy textures of the first movement, Bělohlávek whipped up a frenzy of agitation, the massed brass sounding at times like some maniacal behemoth run amok. The second movement was also alive with unstoppable energy – rarely has the usually amiable Martinů sounded so furious, despite the odd oasis of Czech cordiality here and there. Though never conceived as a symphony proper, there was a certain ineffable logic in Bělohlávek’s treatment of the work’s many episodes, and though conducting entirely from memory, he gave clear, detailed direction to his players. Even Martinů’s tunes, which can sometimes seem a little anonymous, here sounded inspired and full of import, with a hymn-like woodwind melody at the work’s close coming over as particularly beautiful. The orchestra played vibrantly, with the sort of dynamic range and vivid colouration usually associated with the London Symphony Orchestra; it was certainly a distinct departure from the all-too-often obstinate and uninterested playing they gave Slatkin.

It was all the more pity, then, that the performance of Mozart’s Requiem – which should have been a culmination of the elegiac thread running through the programme – came off sounding distinctly uninspired. The singing in particular was a major let down, with the BBC Symphony Chorus sounding scrappy and rather shrill at times – very much at odds with the taut playing of a reduced BBCSO. It probably did not help that choristers outnumbered orchestral players three-to-one, meaning that every climax was ear-splitting rather than heart-rending, and indeed balance problems plagued much of the performance. Of the four soloists, only soprano Kate Royal and bass Matthew Rose made any sort of impression – the latter giving a commanding account of the Tuba mirum – but none of them was really transcendental. More worryingly, there was a distinct lack of spirituality to Bělohlávek’s conducting, with the consequence that the music often sounded more like a suite of choral numbers than a Mass for the Dead; even the Lacrimosa, though beautifully played and relatively well sung, sounded detached and under-energised. It was a remarkable contrast to the deeply felt performances of the first half, and one was left wondering how well Bělohlávek will cope with the non-Czech repertoire he will have to tackle in the Proms seasons ahead. But perhaps we should just be thankful for a conductor capable of bringing out the best in the BBCSO, even if he is yet to bring the same level of discipline and commitment to its choral counterpart.

Tristan Jakob-Hoff



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