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Seen and Heard Concert Review

Smetana, Dvorák, Brahms: Lars Vogt (piano), Philharmonia Orchestra, Jirí Belohlávek (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, 17 April, 2005 (AR)

Conducting his entire concert without the aid of scores, Jirí Belohlávek and the Philharmonia Orchestra began their programme with two excerpts from Smetana’s ever popular Ma Vlast: Sarka and Vltava. Sarka was played with great panache and aplomb, Belohlávek conducting with an impassioned and expressive urgency, whilst the strings in the much-celebrated Vltava had a suave silkiness and a lilting grace, swirling with the rhythmic flow and swell of the great river the music portrays. However, the percussion were sadly far too congested and indistinct and the all important triangle parts were barely audible.

Dvorák’s rarely played tone poem, The Golden Spinning Wheel, Op. 109, (1896) - one of his Four Legends - was given a delicious interpretation by Belohlávek, securing exquisitely poetic playing from the Philharmonia. Tone poems can often be far more difficult to conduct than symphonies, with many conductors fragmenting them into a collection of mere vignettes, but Belohlávek conducted this twenty-five minute score in one sweeping arch, like a rainbow of spinning sounds. His sense and control of line made the music flow with such ease that one lost all sense of time and became absolutely absorbed and hypnotised by this enchanting fairy-tale. The Philharmonia played with much style and enthusiasm here, with some exquisite woodwind playing and impressively sombre sounds emanating from the trombones and cellos’.

Belohlávek had a masterly control over the titanic structure of Brahms’ tragic First Piano Concerto without ever letting it sink, holding the score afloat from beginning to end. The first movement seemed to sail through in a lightening flash and never felt like being twenty plus minutes long. The debonair German pianist Lars Vogt – standing in for an indisposed Piotr Anderszewski - played throughout with a white hot intensity and thus complemented Belohlávek’s dark, riveting and highly concentrated conception.

Whilst the horns and timpani in the opening of the Maestoso were far too recessed and toned-down (as they nearly always are in concert) the Philharmonia played with impassioned attack with rich, weighty grainy cellos and appropriately acidic, shrill woodwind: this movement is dark, tragic, brooding and Belohlávek got the menacing mood to perfection.

Vogt’s radient playing of the Adagio vascilated between an intense murmuring anxiety and distant, reserved melancholia, with the delicate notes floating detached in a haze bathed in a shimmering bed of soft violins. With the Rondo: Allegro non troppo Vogt switched mood and metre, producing jubilant and gleeful dance-like rhythms, yet tinged with a brooding seriousness and sense of tragedy. The conductor accentuated the cross rhythms between cello’s, violas and violins with great dexterity, as if to create a conversation, an initimate trialogue.

Throughout, Vogt, Belohlávek and the Philharmonia painted Brahms’ materpiece in a darker palette than usual, bringing out the tragedy inherent in the score. The half-full house gave deservedly warm applause which Vogt accepted almost shyly, and his outstanding performance was a fitting coda to the Philharmonia’s recent highly acclaimed Brahms Symphony Cycle under Sir Charles Mackerras.

Alex Russell

Further listening:

Smetana: Ma Vlast, Staatskapelle Dresden, Paavo Berglund (conductor): EMI Classics Forte: 5 68649 2

Dvorák: Golden Spinning Wheel, etc.; Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Rafael Kubelik (conductor): Deutsche Grammophon Galleria: 435 075-2

Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1, Clifford Curzon (piano), London Symphony Orchestra, George Szell (conductor): Decca: 425 082-2


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