BBC Symphony Orchestra/Bělohlávek – Josef Suk’s Ripening – Isabelle Faust plays Brahms

Violin Concerto in D, Op.77
Ripening, Op.34

Isabelle Faust (violin)

Ladies of the BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jiří Bělohlávek

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 24 May, 2012
Venue: Barbican Hall, Barbican

Jiří Bělohlávek. ©Clive BardaAlthough he is conducting four times at this year’s BBC Proms (including the Last Night), and will be returning as a Conductor Laureate next season, this concert marked Jiří Bělohlávek’s final Barbican Hall appearance as Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra – and in a programme that underlined his affinity for the European symphonic tradition as well as the Czech repertoire – its gradual exploration has been the single most valuable aspect of his six-year tenure. Equally interesting is that the two works on programme, separated by four decades, both represent an accommodation of Classical formal and Romantic expressive traits as potent as it is distinctive.

Isabelle Faust. Photograph: Felix BroedeA warhorse though it may have long since become, Brahms’s Violin Concerto (1878) is a piece which, in the right hands, can still be provocative and pleasurable in equal measure. So it proved here, with a probing account of the lengthy first movement in which Isabelle Faust’s typically objective commitment was fully in evidence – notably a development that emphasised the music’s pivoting between the inward and combative, and a cadenza that opted for Busoni’s novel solution in which the soloist muses over subsiding timpani, only for strings to effect a haunting transition into the coda. The Adagio then featured woodwind playing of limpid eloquence, which also informed the easeful though never merely passive dialogue with the soloist, while the finale benefitted from a thrusting tempo which, while it left less room for expressive poise in the intervening episodes than is often the case, made the most of the music’s natural élan – not least in the effervescent coda.

It is somehow typical that, having waited 19 years since its last London outing, Josef Suk’s Ripening (1917) should be heard twice in the same month – Bělohlávek’s account following on from that of Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic. No hardship, of course, given the piece’s significance as one poised on the cusp of late-Romanticism and Modernism to a degree equalled only by the Second Symphony of Enescu, as well as the fact that Bělohlávek has few present-day rivals in such music – witness his superb recent recording of this work (Chandos) which the present performance exceeded through a spontaneity only possible in a live context.

While there was little more than a minute’s difference in overall timing, the contrast between these readings was considerable – Jurowski’s taut incisiveness being particularly effective in the work’s first half where the stealthy repetition of salient motifs is allied to a steadily accumulating momentum; though Bělohlávek outdid him in the inevitability with which the music opens-out emotionally during its latter stages – above all, that intensive fugato which takes the place of a reprise (the work’s overall conception marking a highpoint in the amalgamation between sonata-form and symphonic thinking), whose textural as well as harmonic complexity places a premium on orchestral virtuosity in which the BBCSO excelled on this occasion. Nor were the final minutes an anti-climax, Bělohlávek securing the deftest of vocalises from the women of the BBC Symphony Chorus (high above to the rear of the auditorium) as the work duly comes full-circle in a heartfelt conclusion.

A memorable performance, then, that also confirmed the rapport between conductor and orchestra. Although his duties with the Czech Philharmonic will inevitably now take precedence, the continuation of Bělohlávek’s association with the BBC Symphony Orchestra will hopefully see further revivals of neglected Czech pieces – perhaps the often startlingly forward-looking Epilogue that was Suk’s last major work, or the wide-ranging choral drama that is Vítězslav Novák’s The Storm. In the meantime, it is worth looking back on a productive relationship that has featured a significant number of highlights – not least that which brought this concert to a mesmerising close.

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