C [BBC commission: world premiere]
The Golden Spinning Wheel, Op.109 [ed. Suk]
Rhapsody-Concerto for viola and orchestra
Maxim Rysanov (viola)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 10 November, 2011
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
Jiří Bělohlávek continued the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s season with a programme that featured works by three of the most significant Czech composers alongside music by one now in his early thirties, and which went a little of the way toward answering the question as to where Czech music might be headed in the post-Iron Curtain era. Nowhere fast, has to be the regrettable answer. A festival of Czech music in London fifteen years ago suggested it was still struggling to escape from a post-serialist cul-de-sac: here, Jiří Kadeřábek’s C (2011) suggested more of a post-minimalist malaise. Deriving its content in all essentials from the C major scale is fine in itself (Hans Abrahamsen fashioned a whole symphony through a not dissimilar process almost four decades ago), but the music itself was so paltry in expression and the resulting piece so inconsequential in form that what took place hardly seemed to matter. The BBCSO responded ably to its requirements – hand-clapping, breathing through instruments et al – but there was not much to be done in terms of articulating a sustained or even mildly diverting discourse. Bĕlohlávek himself directed with unobtrusive attentiveness, while his beaming welcome to the composer on taking applause suggested that he, at any rate, had enjoyed every one of its eleven minutes.
Second-rate Dvořák then seemed the more potent. Third of five symphonic poems written after the composer had moved on from abstract forms and before devoting himself almost entirely to opera. The Golden Spinning Wheel (1896) again draws on a folk ballad by Karel Erben, but here the text is embodied in the music so that the whole piece becomes a non-vocal ‘setting’. Audacious in intent, this yet leads to a rather prolix evolution that, at almost 30 minutes, could easily outstay its welcome. Dvořák’s protégé Josef Suk tacitly acknowledged this when he trimmed away most of its text-derived repetitions, making for a more compact 20-minute version that touches on the main aspects of Erben’s often-gruesome scenario via an oblique recourse to sonata-form. It was this shortened version that Bĕlohlávek conducted (not that we were told). Whatever the piece’s failings, its melodic immediacy and clarity of orchestration ensure pleasurable listening, though the Smetana-derived effusiveness of the final pages might have been given more its head.
After the interval, the conductor continued his advocacy of Martinů with the Rhapsody-Concerto (1952) that was written for Jascha Veissi, a work that stands near the outset of its composer’s closing phase, in which relative formal freedom goes hand-in-hand with an intensely inward expressive ambit. True, the first movement unfolds rather tardily – its themes falling back on melodic hallmarks that can all too easily become clichés, and with a lack of direction as the music pursues its overly flaccid course – but the second movement finds a much more compelling accommodation between alternately ruminative and incisive ideas, emotional tension accruing intently before finding release in the quietly expectant final bars. Not lacking for exponents over the decades, Maxim Rysanov seemed second to none in his deft handling of its formal discursiveness and his well-nigh-faultless intonation, Bĕlohlávek and the BBCSO generous in support.
Taras Bulba (1918) concluded the concert. Janáček’s misplaced belief in Russian support for the autonomy of Slavic peoples evinces an all-round conviction that was to hold good throughout his extraordinary last decade of creativity. Its restless opening adeptly handled, ‘The Death of Andriy’ briefly seemed to lose direction before its climactic final pages, whereas ‘The Death of Ostap’ was all of a piece in the mingling of starkness and ingratiation on the way to its brutal close. Nor did Bĕlohlávek underplay the cumulative power of the initial stages of ‘The Prophecy and Death of Taras Bulba’, for all that the eventual apotheosis was eloquent rather than transcendent. Eloquent, too, was the playing of the BBCSO as the work headed to its thrilling close, rounding off a fine account of a work for which this conductor feels an understandable affinity. Could Czech music once again summon this degree of conviction? Let us hope so.