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S & H Concert Review

Janácek, Mozart, Dvorák Zoltán Kocsis (piano); Philharmonia Orchestra/Jirí Belohlávek, Royal Festival Hall, Tuesday, January 20th, 2004 (CC)


A remarkable concert in many ways. Czech conductor Jirí Belohlávek on home turf is evidently a force to be reckoned with, and the ovation he received from the orchestra at the end of the evening only confirmed impressions that there is a close rapport in operation here. Belohlávek’s work in the Czech Republic has included a stint as Chief Conductor of the Prague Symphony Orchestra (1977-89) and the founding of the Prague Philharmonia in 1994; in the UK he was appointed Principal Guest Conductor of the BBCSO in 1995.

Belohlávek has recorded Janácek’s Sinfonetta for Chandos. His experience showed through in an interpretation that emphasised this composer’s progressive side. Antiphonally placed trumpets around the orchestra made for an impressive sonic experience in the fanfares of the first and last movements (what playing!) and one sat open-mouthed at the violin’s almost nonchalant way with Janácek’s improbable demands in the second movement. In this latter movement the grotesque was to the fore, but at the same time in certain passages Belohlávek heightened the lyric – the juxtaposition and resultant friction of the two forces created the necessary energy. In Belohlávek’s hands, the brass climax referred clearly back to the fanfares of the first movement (and pointed forward to those of the close), a reflexivity not always highlighted.

If Janácek’s Romantic roots were celebrated by an unashamed string ‘sigh’ to open the Moderato, it seemed a shame that some of the more manic horn writing was not pushed forward in the balance more; similarly, the tempo of the fourth movement was on the verge of Allegro, yet just fell short of violating the ‘Allegretto’ indicator. Here abrupt contrasts once again formed a characteristic disjunct momentum. Much superb playing – if one section of the orchestra deserves unreserved praise, perhaps that should go to the creamy-toned and completely confident trombones.

The same high standards made Dvorák’s New World a memorable experience. Intensity, certainly, was there from the very start. Pauses, pregnant with expectation, were judged perfectly (by no means always the case) and if the rhythmic life of the Allegro was by now no surprise, the explosive brass was. A refusal to linger unnecessarily for the flute’s second subject meant that the triumvirate marriage of structural delineation, surface detail and emotional truth led to a feeling of inevitability I have not heard in this piece for many a year (perhaps twenty years, in fact, when Zdenek Macal conducted the Hallé at the Free Trade Hall in a performance that carried with it much the same confidence and inevitability).

The famous Largo’s cor anglais solo was almost upstaged by the perfectly balanced, creamy, stately brass chords that formed its introduction. If the Scherzo was notable for characterful woodwind and punchy rhythms, it was the finale that brought the Philharmonia to a peak. It was ‘con fuoco’ indeed, just as the composer asks, yet this was a fire born of a joy in life itself. A clarinet solo of liquid legato was a highlight along the way, but there is no doubting that the Philharmonia in full cry as it brought the work to a close was the most memorable part of the experience.

In between came a more routine account of Mozart’s sunny A major Piano Concerto, K488 (No. 23, for those that like to count). Scaled-down orchestral forces provided the perfect back-drop for Hungarian pianist Zoltán Kocsis (who, incidentally, played along ever so subtly with the orchestral exposition). With chamber playing like this from the orchestra, the concerto emerged more as an expanded Piano Quartet, such was the intimacy of interchange. Belohlávek highlighted the clarinets in the texture, invoking a Zauberflöte-like aura. If the Adagio was remarkably swift, it still held within it a great many shadings from pianist and orchestra. Only an underplayed left hand from Kocsis meant that the significance of a piano-bassoon exchange was lost. Speed was once more of the essence in the Allegro assai finale, but here there was some distracting blurring of passage-work from Kocsis (miraculously, not from the bassoonist, who despatched the semiquavers with aplomb). The orchestra pointed the theme significantly better than Kocsis, who displayed a tendency to garble whole passages. A shame – he was comprehensively outclassed by his accompanists.

The Janácek and the Dvorák will live long in this reviewer’s memory. As a postscriptum to this review, it is worth mentioning a pre-concert recital, given by Russian violinist Shlomy Dobrinsky and Malaysian pianist Mei Yi Foo as part of the Philharmonia’s entirely laudable ‘Total Talent’ series. Poignantly dedicated to the memory of Hugh Bean (who died on Boxing Day, 2003), both young artists impressed in a daunting programme of the Franck Violin Sonata and the Prokofiev Second Sonata - especially (once she had warmed up) the pianist. If a touch more abandon in the admittedly fiendish second movement of the Franck would have had us on the edge of our seats, a little more cumulative energy would have made the finale more impressive. In addition, some steadier bow control from Dobrinsky would have eased the third movement: in the final analysis, this remained a performance seated on the cusp of maturity. The bittersweet world of Prokofiev’s fiendish D major Sonata came across well (Foo brought off the perilous choral ending laudably). An interesting bonus.

Colin Clarke




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