Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Pure Janáček @ Barbican Hall, London

Poor Janáček! His major works are among the finest compositions in twentieth century musical literature, yet no one wants to hear them.

Just as the Royal Opera looked to be half full for most of Katya Kabanova‘s recent run, so the Barbican Hall was sadly empty for this concert.

Which was a shame, for it showed the London Symphony Orchestra at the very top of their game.

The famous Sinfonietta was played with unusual ease. The stratospheric violin lines, bubbling whirlpools of woodwind and orgasmic brass cries all slotted correctly into place, the febrile ensemble textures brimming with intricate and sometimes unusual detail. Daniel Harding (someone who has not impressed me before) conducted a persuasive, robust account of the score, shaping spherically and searching for true Vienna Philharmonic luxury in the Moderato.

There were times, however, when I yearned for Charles Mackerras’ sweeping, shamelessly passionate and brutal account of the score. Did Harding ever quite find the work’s heartbeat? There were moments when the orchestra’s instinct pushed ahead of the conductor’s beat; the timpanist noticeably had to rethink his speed in the first movement; Harding, if only at times, threatened to search for too much detail and provide not enough momentum. Yet the orchestra’s dazzling ensemble virtuosity, in the second movement especially, made sure to excite the ear throughout: it was a memorable performance.

Yet it was after the interval that the heat was turned up to eleven. Act Two of Jenufa seemed an odd choice on paper to complement the Sinfonietta, but the performance was thrilling, revelling in every moment of Jancek’s vibrant, colourful and unforgettably humane score. Elizabeth Connell screamed and spat her way superbly through The Kostelnicka’s dramatic music, her delivery effectively contrasting Angela Denoke‘s poised, limpid portrayal of the title role. Christopher Ventris (memorable in the Royal Opera’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk last year) and David Kuebler provided resonant, responsive support.

Though this was a concert performance, the singers pleasingly acted and reacted to one another. The orchestra’s accompaniment was daring and technically outstanding, the strings’ sharp, biting bowing perfectly underpinning the psychologically intense character drama. The first violin was meltingly lyrical in his solos; the double basses and brass thrashed and crashed thrillingly at the act’s conclusion. What a rousing end to a concert that deserved a much larger audience.

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