BBC Symphony Orchestra/Jakub Hrůša – The Cunning Little Vixen & Scheherazade – James Crabb plays The Tiniest House of Time

The Cunning Little Vixen – Suite [arranged František Jílek; UK premiere]
Rolf Hind
The Tiniest House of Time [BBC commission: world premiere]
Scheherazade – Symphonic Suite, Op.35

James Crabb (classical accordion)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jakub Hrůša

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 24 November, 2012
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Jakub Hrůša. Photograph: Hanya Chlala/ArenaPalMake no mistake: Jakub Hrůša (Prague Philharmonia, Glyndebourne Tour, and Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra) is climbing to the top by dint of penetrating musicianship and with the technical means to achieve it. He worked wonders within Janáček’s fantasy forest and describing Rimsky-Korsakov’s Arabian adventures.

Usually when an orchestral suite from Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen is performed, it is that by Václav Talich. A later-generation Czech conductor, František Jílek (1913-93), had a different agenda when preparing his version; by including music from all three acts and respecting the composer’s original orchestration.

Hrůša and the BBC Symphony Orchestra were right inside this elusive music’s sound and soul, exploiting a wide range of dynamics and colours, and bringing out the score’s passion and pathos in compelling fashion, vividly suggesting humans and animals living, breathing and empathising as one in secluded woods with occasional sunlight streaming through. The music was beautifully played and detailed, violins especially impressive in the demanding stratospheric writing, and the horns had a good run just before the end, hunting unanimously. Maybe it takes a native to be so inside the peculiarities of Janáček’s music – its edge and angularity and above all its song and dance – for Hrůša judged everything to a nicety, the BBCSO persuaded and persuasive for 18 opera-in-microcosm minutes.

Scheherazade was also new-minted. From the off the BBCSO played with cultured, well-rounded and deep sound; balance was impeccable, the brass weighty but neither overloud nor crude. This was an absorbing and vivid performance. What particularly stood out was not only Hrůša’s ability to paint pictures, but also that he can stand aside and let the principal players extemporise their solos (or giving the illusion of so doing). Of course, an orchestra’s Leader represents Scheherazade; Stephen Bryant was the sweet-toned story-teller, and there were notable contributions from Susan Monks (cello) and Julie Price (bassoon), Hrůša seen to be doing nothing, not even when multiple pizzicatos were accompanying. Yet the expressive languor, the generous rubato and the carefully graded volumes and tints spoke of painstaking rehearsal now turned into spontaneous recreation. ‘Young Prince and Young Princess’ was simply shaped (as it needs to be), and eloquent, with some delicious arabesques from flute and clarinet, and the tempestuous finale was dramatically uninhibited at an articulate tempo. Imaginative flair and core musical values informed this performance.

At the beginning of the Janáček there had been an interruption from a member of the audience, some sort of wailing. It was disturbing but it was short. Sadly the person’s intrusions returned with a vengeance during Rolf Hind’s new work and very early on, too, yet nobody empowered to do something about these ever-louder, more-extreme disturbances acted. There was surely a case for stopping the performance and asking the person to leave; very gently, maybe, given the culprit’s presumed mental state. But nothing was done and he finally left of his own volition – and was allowed to go free without even a caution!

The howling, however irksome, wasn’t necessarily out of sync with The Tiniest House of Time and its suggestion of a madhouse, if with contrasting Tibetan rituals. The work’s inspiration is through 13th- and 15th- century poetry by Rumi and Kabir, beginning with the former’s On the Lip of Insanity, to which we are plunged directly with a crazy dance, different rhythms overlaid. Immediately to mind was Harrison Birtwistle, then more pertinently Peter Maxwell Davies’s score for Ken Russell’s The Devils. This is not a concerto for classical accordion, but a work for it and orchestra, Hind perceiving the accordion “as shaman – magician, party-animal, healer, rabble-rouser.” James Crabb is a terrific accordionist, a master, and played fabulously. The bank of loudspeakers and a mixing desk left in no doubt that his instrument was amplified (probably your reviewer’s biggest bête-noire), but it was subtle and natural.

Whether the work added up is another matter. Hind uses an orchestra of strings with piano, harp and celesta, reduced woodwinds and brass, but heavy on percussion (five players, no timpani), sometimes ‘industrial’, sometimes delicate, sometimes reminding of Varèse. When we weren’t in the middle of pandemonium, the atmosphere was sinister and dark. The music intrigued for a while, but did not sustain its 32 minutes, tension flagged but was regained, but the music became risible at the end (with Tan Dun-like water sounds and the string-players flicking their bows as if fly-swatters); there were some audience titters and a woman Laughed Out Loud. Yet, the rambling that this first performance suggested (despite an excellent launch, Hrůša totally committed) can in greater part be blamed on the unchecked commotion. Therefore this is an interim report until a re-hearing under more favourable circumstances is possible. I do not see how BBC Radio 3 can broadcast the scheduled recording made at this unfortunate premiere.

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