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Smetana, Foerster, Dvořâk : Ivan Ženatý (violin); BBC Symphony Orchestra/Jiří Bělohlávek. Barbican Hall, 8.12. 2007 (CC)

Jiří Bělohlávek is certainly making his presence felt at the helm of the BBCSO  -he officially took up the post of Chief Conductor after the Last Night of the Proms last year - in his intelligent repertoire choices and in his evident careful rehearsal techniques. The present concert presented the music of Bělohlávek’s homeland and mixed the familiar with an unexpected UK premiere.

Josef Bohuslav Foerster (1859-1951) wrote his First Violin Concerto in 1910/11, yet here  in 2007, was its very belated first outing on these shores. Foerster was a prolific composer who pioneered Czech realist village drama in his first opera,
Debora, of 1893. He spent a period in Vienna (1903-18) before returning to his homeland, to teach at the Prague Conservatory. His appointment in Vienna to the Court Opera was the work of none other than a certain Gustav Mahler. Although the First Violin Concerto stems from his Vienna period, the first movement seemed, to me, to point rather towards the lushness of Szymanowski (1883-1937) – a sort of Szymanowski-but-not-quite. The long, wistful, yearning lines were confidently delivered by the young soloist  Ivan Ženatý. A Tchaikovsky Competition finalist,  Ženatý seemed entirely at home. His lovely, bohemian-tinged double-stopping was a highlight of the first movement.

I remain puzzled about the cadenza, however. Although Jan Smaczny’s excellent programme note stated that 'Foerster places a relatively brief cadenza just before the work’s determined close',   Ženatý decided to replace this with one of his own. Why? Obviously, given that this is a UK premiere, we have no way of knowing Foerster’s original, but was this initial cadenza really so awful?   Ženatý’s replacement was a textbook, cliché-ridden affair that might as well have been the result of some Conservatory homework.

The concerto's slow movement, an 'Andante sostenuto (quasi Adagio)'  was remakably interesting. Although in performance terms there was a shaky start, with orchestral ensemble not being everything it could have been, the movement impressed because of the restrained desolation of the low writing for solo violin, its occasional quasi-Wagnerian harmonies,  and the way in which Bělohlávek made the phrases act if they were inhaling and exhaling. The sunny, dancing,  finale was utterly charming (this time with a more fitting cadenza, perfectly rendered but no clue as to provenance here, however).

Throughout the concerto, the orchestral contribution was an absolute joy. The BBCSO shone, too, in the two outer works. Firstly, the Overture and three Dances from Smetana's
The Bartered Bride began in a blaze of bright light. Second violin articulation was exemplary, while Czech inflections sounded remarkably authentic, regardless of whether they were Bohemian-reflective or bouncing along with a pronounced sense of Schwung. The three dances found the orchestra having fun  too, with a decidedly rustic Polka, a bright Furiant and a fast, furious and fun 'Dance of the Comedians'.

It would have been all too easy to report on yet
another Dvořâk Eighth Symphony in just a few lines to round off this review, had it not been for the fact that this performance was simply superb. Bělohlávek was more faithful than usual to the 'con brio' part of the tempo indication to the first movement, and in doing this brought a real organicist approach to his interpretation. The movement cohered perfectly, while along the way one could admire the glowing brass and the superb upper strings. This was a dynamic reading that operated in full contrast to the dark Adagio, where the dissonances were highlighted. In addition, there was affection clearly in evidence everywhere. Maybe it was Bělohlávek's ability to convey identifiable moods that marked out this performance, or maybe it was his confluence of structural hearing with his ability to let the music breathe. But memorable it was.

Incidentally, there is a recording of Foerster's First Violin Concerto, on Orfeo 403971, with Andrea Duka-Löwenstein and the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gerd Albrecht. Or, you could just make a note to listen to the BBC's broadcast of this concert, at 7pm on Tuesday, December 18
th on Radio 3.


Colin Clarke



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