Jakub Hrůša followed-up his Philharmonia Orchestra concert from last November, which featured Dvořák’s First Set of Slavonic Dances as the unlikely yet effective second half. This time it was the turn of the Second and (when taken overall) less-familiar Set, but even finer musically. Finished a decade after its predecessor, the Second Set (1887) has Dvořák expanding not only the range of dance-types used but also their expressive potential. In part this was surely a rebuke to his publisher Simrock for expecting him merely to repeat the formula in the interests of commercial gain, though the extent to which Dvořák matured as a composer permeates these pieces – which brought what had previously been a straightforward expression of nationalist sentiment to a new level of technical sophistication.
Hrůša seemed to recognise this in the way these eight Dances were grouped as two groups of four, the first three in each ensuing with minimal pause. The opening ‘Odzemek’, lively and nonchalant by turns, was followed by a meltingly expressive ‘Dumka’ then the robust and even mischievous ‘Skocná’. Similarly, the capricious ‘Spacírka’ made way for the good-natured ‘Polonaise’ then uproarious ‘Kolo’ (still an encore of choice when occasion demands). That left the Fourth and Eighth Dances – the former being another ‘Dumka’ whose ambivalent tonal shades anticipate Bartók and Skalkottas, while the closing ‘Sousedská’ is quite simply among Dvořák’s finest inspirations; its subtly unfolding (indeed, almost through-composed) sections afforded coherence by a haunting refrain whose suffused nostalgia admits of no mean pathos.
As before, Hrůša’s intuitive feeling for the essence of this music was communicated directly and unostentatiously to the Philharmonia Orchestra, which responded with playing of real panache yet no lack of refinement and sensitivity. Earlier there was attentive support to Denis Kozhukhin in what was an engaging and insightful account of Grieg’s Piano Concerto (1868). This was at its best in an affecting take on the central Adagio, its rapt eloquence ideally judged, though there was little to fault in either outer movement – both of which benefitted from the unforced pacing and steadily accumulating momentum brought to their rhapsodic overall designs. The first movement’s cadenza was superbly articulated, and the Finale’s apotheosis had grandeur without bathos – following which, Kozhukhin returned for a limpid rendering of a Mendelssohn Song without Words, the F-sharp minor Sixth piece of Opus 30.
Hrůša had begun proceedings with Kodály’s Dances of Galánta (1933), now having regained much of its one-time familiarity in the concert hall. Essentially a more sophisticated handling of the folksong fantasia pioneered by Liszt, its gradually accelerating sequence was marshalled with gusto – featuring, along the way, clarinet-playing of appropriate insouciance by Mark van de Wiel. Hopefully Hrůša will be tackling Dances of Marosszék in due course.
Hopefully, too, Hrůša will be encouraged to continue his exploration of Czech music over his tenure as the Philharmonia’s Principal Guest Conductor. For now, he rounded off this well-planned and highly entertaining programme with a repeat of Dvořák’s ‘Kolo’.