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Martinů, Hummel, Dvořák: BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/Günther Herbig (conductor), Karen Geoghegan (bassoon), Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 14.1.2011 (MC)

Martinů: Symphony No. 6 ‘Fantaisies symphoniques (1951/53)

Hummel: Bassoon (Grand) Concerto (c.1805 or 1811/16)

Dvořák: Symphony No.8 in G major, Op. 88 (1889)

Günther Herbig
proves the point that there is no substitute for experience. The German maestro has had a long and fruitful relationship with the BBC Philharmonic since becoming their Principal Guest Conductor back in 1980. I have attended several BBC Phil concerts with Herbig at the helm and reflect back to the 1983/84 season experiencing marvellous performances of Bruckner 5 and Mahler 5 at Manchester’s old Free Trade Hall.

At the Bridgewater Hall a splendid evening of music from three composers all with birth roots in Slavic lands was programmed by the BBC Phil. The concert commencing at the earlier than usual time of 7.00pm was broadcast live for BBC Radio 3. Each work was introduced by presenter
Petroc Trelawny.

The opening score Martinů’s Symphony No. 6 ‘Fantaisies symphoniques comes from a period when the Bohemia born composer was sharing his time between Europe and the United States. A twentieth-century masterpiece the symphony for large orchestra including five percussionists deserves to be far better known. The Fantaisies symphoniques is no stranger to the BBC Phil but I doubt they can have played it better than this. Under Herbig the playing of the score produced an irresistible impact often with the intoxicating power of an adrenaline rush. As a former orchestral violinist Martinů certainly knew how to write for strings. I loved the eerie swirling textures that reminded me of insect swarms. Herbig allowed Martinů’s music to breathe and the darkly beautiful string sound was impressive especially the resplendent tone of the outstanding cello section.

Bassoon concertos are not the most frequent visitors to the concert hall. But what’s that saying about buses coming all at once? It was only two months ago that the BBC Phil audience at the Bridgewater heard the distinguished bassoonist Dag Jensen play the Mozart concerto. The soloist this evening Karen Geoghegan played the Hummel Bassoon (Grand) Concerto with the orchestra with which she made her BBC Proms debut in 2009. Slovak born Hummel represents music at the close of the Viennese classical era. A student of Mozart and Haydn and an acquaintance of Beethoven I cannot think of too many composers who had been surrounded by as much great musical talent as Hummel. The trimmed down BBC Phil played the Hummel concerto with compelling elegance and assured nobility. Of a rather serious character the opening movement was followed by a Romanza of a generally calm and reflective quality. Satisfying yet taxing the somewhat understated cadenza aptly displayed the range of the instrument. A buoyant and joyously effervescent Rondo containing an attractive theme ensured a bold and gratifying conclusion to this well received score. Clearly working hard in this technically demanding score Geoghegan enhanced her bourgeoning reputation with a splendid performance. Signed by the Chandos label as an exclusive artist in 2007 Geoghegan already has four CDs under her belt, including a recording of the Hummel bassoon concerto. Recently commissioned by MusicWeb-International a concerto for bassoon and string orchestra by Howard Blake is scheduled to be recorded by Geoghegan this year. I understand that a recording of the bassoon concerto by noted film composer John Williams maybe in the offing.

The best known work of the evening Dvořák’s Symphony No.8 must be a prized repertoire staple for Günther Herbig conducting without a score no doubt having performed it numerous times. A native of Bohemia few composers held a more Nationalistic outlook than Dvořák who loved to integrate the sounds of nature and folksong into his symphonic music. Engaging and high-spirited in character the Symphony No.8 written mainly at the composer’s Bohemian retreat overflows with a fresh bucolic lyricism. Herbig provided an arresting account
drawing spirited and sympathetic playing from the BBC Phil. Teeming with Bohemian appeal the exciting opening movement concluded in a jubilant mood. The vibrant brass demonstrating their understanding of the Bridgewater sonics were always purposeful but never too strident. Superb playing by the shimmering woodwind section especially the principal flute and cor anglais who are real talents. Notable in the pastoral infused Adagio was the dark rich timbre of the swooning low strings. An Intermezzo rather than a Scherzo the third movement contains attractive, richly lyrical if rather lugubrious melodies with the strings again excelling. An emphatic trumpet fanfare introduces the headstrong Finale, a theme and set of variations. A Dvořák masterstroke is the return of the delightful main theme by the cellos. The assured Herbig steered the BBC Phil to a drivingly dramatic and memorable conclusion.

The Bridgewater audience responded enthusiastically to an engaging programme with vivid performances from the impressive BBC Phil. It would be unthinkable for
Günther Herbig not to return soon.

Michael Cookson

Interviews with
Karen Geoghegan for Music Web are here:

and here:

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