This opening concert in the Philharmonia Orchestra’s three part ‘Bohemian Legends’ series – devoted to the music of Dvořák, Janáček and Suk – was distinctive both in content and in quality.
Still only 32, guest conductor Jakub Hrůša already has an impressive record of accomplishment, including a Glyndebourne debut with Carmen in 2008 and subsequent performances with Glyndebourne on Tour, and is currently Music Director of the Prague Philharmonia. His previous concerts with the Philharmonia have been distinguished by their musicality and excitement, and this one was no exception.
The opening work, Janáček’s Jealousy, was originally intended as a prelude to Jenůfa, although the composer eventually decided it was more suitable as an independent concert piece. Hrůša led a propulsive account of the score, conjuring playing from the orchestra both thrilling and luminous during the work’s six minute span.
This was followed by Dvořák, represented by his middle period Violin Concerto, played here by Arabella Steinbacher. Hrůša’s account of the concerto’s opening orchestral statement was slightly understated, allowing the solo violin to stand as an equal partner in conveying the musical argument, but a little more fervour would not have gone amiss.
However, there was more than adequate compensation in the interplay between violin and orchestra in the rest of the movement. Steinbacher’s easeful, tender and poetic performance in the Adagio was given excellent support by the woodwinds, Christopher Cowie’s sensitive and moving oboe solo a particular highlight. The finale was equally successful, the energy of Steinbacher’s playing matched by the lithe and detailed accompaniment under Hrůša.
For an encore, Steinbacher performed the first movement of Ysaÿe’s Second Violin Sonata, a work notable for its quotations of Bach’s Third Violin Sonata as well as the medieval Dies irae.
Josef Suk’s rarely heard symphonic poem Praga, completed in 1904 when he was 30, is a colourful and dramatic tribute to the Czech capital that should be played more often. With all sections of the orchestra on tremendous form – the brass in particular providing an astonishing level of accuracy and tonal beauty – Hrůša’s performance blazed with insight and conviction. The final peroration, making use of the Royal Festival Hall’s recently restored organ, was absolutely thrilling. This was a performance that will long resonate in the memory.
The concert concluded with a vivid performance of Janáček’s Sinfonietta, the 13 additional brass players required for the piece arrayed in the choir above the orchestra. With razor sharp articulation and beautifully balanced textures, the playing was a pleasure in itself, but there was also a sense of excitement and fantasy in Hrůša’s interpretation. The splendour of the sound at the conclusion had to be heard to be believed, although it has to be said that it was the close of Suk’s Praga that provided the greater emotional impact.
Further details of Royal Festival Hall concerts can be found at southbankcentre.co.uk.