As part of the short series of concerts curated by Jakub Hrůša, Bohemian Legends, focusing on Czech music from its golden era 1850 – 1950 and featuring three of its greatest masters (Dvořák, Janáček and Suk), the Philharmonia treated us to a collection of almost excessively rousing works. In common with much of Czech music of this period (the series does not include the other two great figures of Smetana and Martinů) a prevailing sense of optimism and dynamism marks these composers out as occupying a distinctive place in the musical scene of the time. The use of Czech folksongs and dance rhythms provides the musical coloration common to all, but something more fundamentally earthy in the Czech spirit unites the music at a deeper level.
Having said that, the first work in the programme, Jealousy sees Janáček creating a fittingly edgy atmosphere. As the original overture for his most striking opera, Jenufa, Hrůša and the Philharmonia found just the right note of latent anxiety. The relaxed tempo initially seemed to lack tension, but as the piece progressed it enabled the drama to unfold and the curtly abrupt ending felt perfectly placed. Only glimpses of the sublimely hopeful conclusion to the opera can be found in this dramatic nugget; maybe this is why Janáček replaced it with the more ambiguous short prelude that now opens the opera.
Dvořák’s Violin Concerto in A minor followed, in a spirited performance by Arabella Steinbacher. Of Dvořák’s concertante works, the Cello Concerto has held pride of place. The Piano Concerto has always been accused of being unpianistic and the Violin Concerto has been unfairly compared to the Brahms concerto, which was composed the year before. This comparison was also compounded by some bad press from Joseph Joachim, who was the intended dedicatee, but who never performed the work. However, over the years the concerto has become a standard repertoire piece, beloved by audiences and performers alike.
Steinbacher succeeded in finding a good balance between the wide ranging moods of the three movements. The tense first movement had nobility and just enough Brahmsian grit, dissolving effortlessly into the altogether sweeter slow movement. Here Steinbacher’s rich tone shone through all the superb melodies as she presented them one after another, with brilliant support from the woodwind. In the dance-like finale she showed a lively rhythmic sense and a playful side which brought the piece to its spirited conclusion. Overall this was an assured performance technically and in its musical conception, however it lacked something of the rhythmic pliability that one ideally looks for in performances of Dvořák.
Josef Suk’s Praga was the least known work on the programme, by a long way. Suk’s music is hugely underestimated and under-performed. Apart from the Asrael Symphony, with its raw emotions carrying all before it, his other orchestral works are largely ignored in the concert hall outside of Prague. This is greatly to be regretted as all of these works are of great value and interest. As the son-in-law of Dvořák, he was initially seen to be in the great man’s shadow and then after the tragic death of his wife (Dvořák’s daughter) at a young age, his musical style became more chromatic and intense, reflecting his personal grief. This music was then seen as being too ‘hard’, even though the musical language is not more challenging than late Mahler or early Schoenberg.
Praga was the last work Suk wrote before the death of his wife and still retains that early, more tuneful, diatonic manner. Rather like Richard Strauss mixed with Smetana, it is on a grand scale, depicting the beauty and dignity of the city and its turbulent history. After a beautifully caught, hushed opening, the Philharmonia brass section was given full rein with the barrage of Hussite horn calls and battle scenes that follows. Respite is found in an achingly beautiful love theme that touches on something more human and personal. The whole, as conducted by Hrůša, was a thrilling experience, devoid of the bombast that can mar late Smetana works from Má vlast. The final burnished peroration, complete with organ and bells, was one of the most exciting sounds I’ve heard at a concert for many a day.
What can one say about Janáček’s Sinfonietta? It’s a work which seems to encapsulate all the positive dynamism which characterizes so much of the Czech repertoire. It has become one of the most popular orchestral works of the 20th century and in this performance one could see why. From the brilliant brass fanfares of the opening movement, each perfectly formed (and never predictable) movement that follows was brought off by Hrůša and the Philharmonia with accuracy and clarity, even when pushed to the limited in the wilder moments. This is not a work to tidy up and impose an inner logic, but it does need a virtuoso performance from the whole orchestra to make it gleam. It certainly gleamed here, with the final fanfares rounding off the evening in another prime example of aural splendour - though not erasing the Suk, which for me was star performance of the evening.