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Seen and Heard Prom Review


PROM 50: Novak, Schumann and Stravinsky, Llyr Williams (piano), BBC Symphony Orchestra, Jiri Belohlavek conductor, Royal Albert Hall, 21 August, 2005 (ED)

Eternal Longing

Piano Concerto in A minor

The Firebird (1945 Suite)


This concert marked the only Proms outing of the BBC Symphony Orchestra with Jiri Belohlavek, their chief conductor designate, at the helm. Although their relationship goes back some years – he was their principal guest from 1995 to 2000 – no doubt many listened to the concert, and perhaps heard a sign of things to come.  The programming established a certain amount of interest, and mixed an old warhorse (ridden out for the 99th time at the Proms); a reworking of one of Stravinsky’s most pungent early scores and a largely unknown tone poem by a composer one could do with hearing a great deal more of.


Novak’s Eternal Longing is something rather audacious to launch a newly formalized relationship with, though Belohlavek clearly believes in the composer having brought us his Melancholic Songs of Love last season. Inspired largely by Hans Christian Andersen’s story of the moon from the Picture-book Without Pictures, Novak paints a delicate nocturnal scene fully of character and vitality, but also stillness.


One sensed that this was a composer revelling in his art with the orchestral colours and harmonies shifting and changing to fit the distinct narrative of Andersen’s programmatic framework. It also proved a strong vehicle for the orchestra to show – as they did throughout the evening – no only great unity in their tutti playing, but delicacy and character in solo passages. The sound Belohlavek encouraged was seductive at first, pizzicato violins over slight harps to evoke the moon, but built to demonstrate a keen ear for sonority throughout all departments that combined passion and precision to an uncommon degree. Basses, violins against softly held brass, solo clarinet, viola and cello all distinguished themselves. Left energised and eager for more, I found it hard to believe that Oskar Nedbal who conducted the premiere in 1905 found the work “chaos, deliberate chaos.”


Schumann’s Piano Concerto has in its time too attracted derision, hard to credit though that is. Refreshingly the work was presented to neither endorse Liszt’s view of it as a ‘concerto without piano’ nor as some have said ‘a piano solo with orchestral accompaniment.’ Instead, Llyr Williams’ solo part was youthfully given as almost integral to the orchestral texture, though at moments when the piano was required to separate itself this was achieved without forcing the tone.  Aside from a few moments in the first movement, things on the whole avoided the sentimental traps of the Romantic concerto. In this respect Belohlavek’s handling of the orchestra was a major factor: he closely observed the Intermezzo’s often ignored marking, and favoured brisk tempi generally. This helped solos to register effectively through the texture and balance the ear-catchingly dynamic orchestra in full flow.


Stravinsky’s The Firebird is most often heard these days in its full and original scoring. To come to the later 1945 reworking was rewarding not only to hear the composer’s later thoughts on his early score, but for the sense of drama with which it was played.  In later life Stravinsky claimed a dislike of this score, but I wonder if this was really so? True, this version is tighter and less opulent in tone than the original, but it also retains the plot (almost) intact together with the musical material. Perhaps more than anything though Belohlavek’s reading brought out the drama within the score – from that wonderful rasping low string opening, then low brass against woodwind, the pas de deux scored for lyrical oboe solo, the seductive horn solo that marks Ivan’s entry, or the bassoon – supremely dreamy – in the lullaby. The unleashing of the orchestra in the infernal dance was impressive for its controlled abandon and gradually built power, before a nobly delivered solo horn call that begins the finale; the most opulent part of this re-scoring. Stravinsky, I suspect, knew a crowd-pleaser when he heard one: Belohlavek gave it full reign, and why not. Anything else just would not do.


In the after-concert talk principal clarinettist Richard Hosford admitted the worst moment of his BBC SO career was ‘once falling asleep in Janacek’s Sinfonietta’. After tonight’s showing it is hard to imagine that any player will be dozing off during Belohlavek’s tenure, whoever the composer may be.



Evan Dickerson

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