Opera + Classical Music Reviews

BBC SO/Belohlávek @ Barbican Hall, London

9 October 2009

Bohuslav Martinu died in 1959 and, sadly, his 50th anniversary this year has been rather swallowed up by those of so many other composers.

Thank goodness, then, for the composer’s countryman Jir Belohlávek and the BBC Symphony Orchestra for making a complete cycle of his symphonies a major component of their programme for the next nine months.

The first concert in the series last week combined the First symphony with Mozart, Mahler and Mussorgsky.

This second kicked off with the Symphony No.2, written for the Czech migr community of Cleveland, USA, where he was living at the time. The year was 1943 and the homeland was still suffering under the Nazi jackboot but Martinu managed to inject characteristic high spirits and celebration into the work, which after all was marking the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Czech state.

Totally at home in this music, Belohlávek conducted a driving account through the lilting first movement, pastoral folk-inspired second, frolicsome scherzo and rapturous finale. If there was a dash of brashness to some of the orchestra’s playing in this first piece, there wasn’t a hint of it in the following item, with the BBCSO delivering a wonderfully refined performance of Strauss’ glorious Four Last Songs.

The German soprano Anne Schwanewilms showed not a sign of histrionics or forced emotion, instead giving an arrestingly simple, sincere delivery that was all the more affecting for it. Playing to match was crowned by a beautifully poised solo by leader Stephen Bryant in “Beim Schlafengehen.” Altogether, this was the finest performance of the work I’ve heard in a good number of years and, let’s face it, it’s one never long absent from the repertoire.

After the interval, the sombre mood continued with another late, late work: Mahler’s Adagio from his uncompleted Tenth Symphony. Perhaps not the composer’s best adagio, it takes Mahlerian rambling to a whole new height but the pay-off is the dissonant climax, a quite shocking outburst in Belohlávek’s hands.

While it would be good to have the Martinu symphonies spread over three rather than six evenings, allowing audiences to experience the cycle over a shorter timespan, each concert is cleverly programmed with excellent choices of accompanying works.

On this occasion, things came to an end with more Strauss the youthful jaunt through Till Eulenspiegel’s colourful life, depicted with bags of oomph and toe-tapping clarity. The cycle continues on 19 February with Martinu’s Fourth symphony, Korngold’s Violin Concerto in D and the world premiere of a suite extracted from Janacek’s Katya Kabanova.

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