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PROM 15 - Smetana, Bartók, Martinů, Stravinsky: Jaroslava Pěchočová, Václav Mácha (pianos); BBC Symphony Orchestra/Jiří Bělohlávek. Royal Albert Hall, 27.7. 2009 (CC)

Smetana: The Bartered Bride Overture
Bartók: Dance Suite
Martinů: Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra (1943)
Stravinsky: Petrushka (1946 revision)

Despite a bitty feel to the very first Prom, the BBCSO acquitted itself well on that occasion. The next Prom I saw this season was that given by the Lyon orchestra, and if not one of the great concerts, it was nevertheless very enjoyable. So, time for a truly duff one, then. And here it was, right on cue.

The initial problem was acoustical. The Royal Albert Hall simply does not do the level of definition that the opening of Smetana’s Bartered Bride Overture demands. Lacklustre ensemble hardly helps, so that crispness, so vital for this piece’s success, was notable by its absence. Some of the more tricky sections held on by the skin of their teeth (how much rehearsal did they have?). Finally, and perhaps more understandably, the woodwind sounded more provincial English than rural Czech, their pipings leaving this listener, for one, totally cold. 

Bartók’s Dance Suite was a nice idea. But Bartók has his own flavour, and it wasn’t on the menu on the night. The strings lacked the depth the first movement required. Bassoons who showed at least some character, acted as a gateway for some fine brass playing, a false promise if ever there was one. The undifferentiated mélange of the second movement meant that high spirits were implied rather than actually there and the BBCSO achieved the rare accolade of actually making Bartók’s carefully considered harmonies sound accidentally generated. If the “molto tranquillo” wasn’t particularly tranquil, it was still the best effort so far. Levels of ensemble reached new depths in the finale, as if to balance the glimmer of light we had been accorded. It really felt as if it could fall apart any second.

Finally for the concert’s first part, a rarity. Martinů’s Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra of 1943 is a delightful piece that deserves more airings. Last heard at the Proms way back in 1952, it includes a notable, fantasia-like central Adagio (parts of which are notated minus barlines). Both soloists were intensely musical (both are pupils of the great Ivan Moravec, which may well have something to do with it). On the First Night we heard Poulenc’s offering for two pianos (with the Labèques). In its own way, this one was just as memorable. Light, glitter, mischief and a superb cadenza in the finale all added up to delight. Unfortunately there was some muddying of textures from the orchestra, who sounded significantly less involved than the soloists, in truth.

It would have been best to have gone home around then. The Petrushka was simply awful, despite some enjoyable solo contributions from the orchestral ranks. The opening cello line, so cruelly written by the composer, was valiantly delivered but was rather insecure. Horns could lag behind the beat, the “Russian Dance” was rather blunted and an early, obvious, wrong entry by bassoons summed up the ragged nature of the performance of the Stravinsky, and, in fact, the concert as a whole. Rhythms were never really tight enough to generate excitement and exuberance was notable by its absence. As I say, there were some notable solos: trumpet and drum at opposite ends of the stage but still together, some wonderful piano playing and a tremendous pair of clarinets working in cahoots. But add all those highlights up and you get probably less than a couple of minutes in total – which leaves over half an hour of lowlights. The curtailed, concert ending of this version seemed abrupt, almost as if we were robbed. But given the prevailing standard maybe we were actually saved. A BBC orchestra on autopilot always makes for depressing listening. A shame. Do try to hear the Martinů, though, in one of its only two CD incarnations (cpo or Elan labels).

Colin Clarke

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