BBC Symphony Orchestra – Jiří Bělohlávek, Anne Schwanewilms, Martinů Symphony Cycle

Symphony No.2
Four Last Songs
Symphony No.10 – Adagio
Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Op.28

Anne Schwanewilms (soprano)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jiří Bělohlávek

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 9 October, 2009
Venue: Barbican Hall. London

Bohuslav Martinů (centre) & Charlotte Martinů with friends - painter Jan Zrzavý and writer Vítězslav Nezval, Paris 1934. ©Centrum Bohuslava Martinů, PoličkaThe BBC Symphony Orchestra and Jiří Bělohlávek’s cycle of Bohuslav Martinů’s six symphonies moved on in this most enjoyable concert to the charming Second, written in the face of the Second World War to show strength in adversity for the Czech people.

While its lyricism comes with a touch of nervousness this is nonetheless a resolute, affirming work, and Bělohlávek brought these elements together most successfully. In the third movement, a march-like scherzo, there was a carefree ebullience, the music moving with an optimistic tread. The opening of the first movement was particularly well done, too, the opulent textures topped by the violin melody but with plenty of the inner woodwind workings revealed. Where appropriate Bělohlávek dug in, revealing some of the symphony’s more punchy rhythms, while the particularly beautiful Andante shone with its folksy melodies, the sweet-toned strings stilled towards the end as the composer entered a more thoughtful mood.

Anne SchwanewilmsThat Martinů survived a first-half placement alongside Richard Strauss’s contemporaneous “Four Last Songs” says much about the qualities of the Czech composer’s piece, the Songs themselves given a radiant performance by Anne Schwanewilms. Something of a Strauss specialist, she sang with a completely natural approach, inhabiting the text without posturing and affectation. She was extremely responsive to Bělohlávek’s detailed accompaniment, its ever-shifting harmonies carefully placed so that each inflection of phrase and shift of mood was finely caught. When she needed to Schwanewilms projected beautifully, but at all times she was at-one with the dynamics of the orchestra; not to mention Stephen Bryant’s exquisite violin solo in the third Song.

The young, capricious Strauss was on show for the final piece, the orchestra enjoying the jaunts and capers of Till Eulenspiegel. This was a colourful performance, brilliantly played for the most part and often raising a smile when Bělohlávek subtly adjusted the tempo or added a dash of rubato. Percussion whirred, brass brayed and the strings swaggered as appropriate, while Nicholas Korth and Cindy Lin respectively excelled in their solos for horn and E-flat clarinet, if not fully revealing the impudence the composer might have sought.

Before Till was a relatively swift performance of the opening Adagio of Maher’s Tenth Symphony, strangely described in Paul Griffiths’s programme-note as “the only movement to have been brought to anything near completion”, which, in terms of short score at least, is not the case (as Deryck Cooke’s Performing Version(s) make clear). Bělohlávek didn’t linger over the violas’ opening melody, or the fulsome violin theme that followed, though he did bring a balletic quality to the contrasting dance-like episodes. He then built a satisfying tension as the strings tentatively approached the composer’s crowning multi-note chord, which rang out with impressive sonority.

  • Concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and is available on BBC iPlayer for seven days afterwards
  • Martinů cycle continues on 19 February 2010 with Symphony No.4
  • BBC Radio 3
  • Barbican

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