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Martinů, R. Strauss, Mahler: Anne Schwanewilms (soprano); BBC Symphony Orchestra/Jiří Bĕlohlávek. Barbican Hall, London, 9.10. 2009(CC)


The bond between the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Czech maestro Jiří Bĕlohlávek is really beginning to yield results. This was a tremendously taxing programme for any orchestra, and the BBCSO acquitted itself excellently.


Bĕlohlávek is presenting all six of the Martinů symphonies this season. He is passionate about this composer’s music, and his advocacy is London’s clear gain. Martinů’s Second Symphony was written in 1943, a time at which there was general optimism about the fate of the Czech nation, still under German occupation. Martinů, of course, was in exile in America, as were many of his countrymen. The 25th anniversary of the founding of an independent Czechoslovak state (October 1918) was basis enough to provide a piece whose sunny disposition must have brightened the mood considerably. The work was written in the Summer of 1943 in Darien, Connecticut There is a distinct pastoral bent that was most appealing. The bright, bucolic opening was lovely, A pity there was some congestion in tuttis, as the actual reading was inspiring. Despite the ostensibly happy-so-lucky gait of the score, Bĕlohlávek managed to find shadows that added a depth to the reading: shadows that emphasised the light. The spirit of Moravian folksong informs the “slow” movement (the marking is Andante moderato). An aspirational, hymn-like theme vied with passages that exuded a mysterious, frozen sheen. Martinů’s scoring includes a piano, whose spiky, stabbed notes punctuated the texture; in contrast, circus burlesque informed the Scherzo. Here the performance really took off, disciplined and beautifully shaped. The more intense contrasting passages were magnificently rendered, ass was the Allegro finale: a sort of Czech Stravinsky. Bright and breezy, it was the perfect close.

Anne Schwanewilms has made quite a name for herself in the music of Richard Strauss, including a notable Hyperion issue. She was on fine fettle here, in Strauss’ radiant, crepuscular Four Last Songs. The first song, “Frühling”, impressed because of her fine breath control. Her voice is remarkable. She can change the tone so that it sounds more like an instrument than a voice; at other times it is fragile, vulnerable, entirely human. The orchestra accompanied superbly, especially in terms of purity and clarity at the opening of the second song, “September”. If the final horn solo of this song was not quite as beautiful as one might like, it was in the third song, “Beim Schlafengehen” that it all truly came together. Schwanewilms seemed to have a heightened affinity to the atmosphere of this particular song, something which inspired leader Stephen Bryant to a tender solo (the dovetail with the voice at the solo’s conclusion was perfect). The orchestra glowed in the final “Im Abendrot” (great diction from Schwanewilms on the word “Schlafenszeit”). Only some faulty ensemble at the every end was noted, but it was not enough to detract from a significant performance.

Nice to see two pieces in a second half. The Adagio from Mahler’s Tenth is a challenge for any orchestra, and the BBC Symphony rose to it well. Violas in particular triumphed with their long lines, as did the high violins. Textures flowed, and the wind captured the surreal, caricature element of some of the writing well. If intensity could have been cranked up a little, and the climactic chords could have been even more shattering, this was still impressive. As was the very different companion piece, Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel. I wasn’t sure, come the famous first horn solo at the beginning, whether the horn player was following Bĕlohlávek or the other way around, but it worked whichever way. Everyone seemed on their toes for this perilous but playful piece. Again, Stephen Bryant’s solo violin was notable, as were the characterful bassoons. Bĕlohlávek presented each section in an almost cartoon-like manner. A superb way to end. Great things may be on the horizon for this orchestra on present evidence.

Colin Clarke

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