BBC Symphony Orchestra – Jiří Bělohlávek, Elisabeth Leonskaja, Martinů Symphony Cycle

Fantasia concertante on a theme of Corelli
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.54
Fantaisies symphoniques (Symphony No.6)

Elisabeth Leonskaja (piano)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jiří Bělohlávek

Reviewed by: David Wordsworth

Reviewed: 8 May, 2010
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Jiří Bělohlávek. ©Clive BardaPerhaps a peculiar programme on first consideration, but one that had been very carefully thought out, the term ‘Fantasia’ connecting works by three composers who may seem light-years away from each other. It is unfortunate how Michael Tippett’s music seem to have dropped out of the repertoire since his death in 1998, particularly so as far as the works of the late-1940s and early-1950s are concerned, as this period contains some of the most visionary and glowingly beautiful music of the twentieth-century.

Jiří Bělohlávek should certainly be congratulated for taking on a piece that he probably hasn’t conducted before. If such a difficult piece can be over-prepared, this was perhaps an example of that – Tippett’s dense string lines finely teased out, some excellent solo playing from Stephen Byrant and Amyn Merchant (violins) and Graham Bradshaw (cello), none credited in the programme, but it was just a pity that the dancing exuberance and improvisational qualities, such an important part of Tippett’s musical character, didn’t shine through to the same degree. In addition, the solo violinists, standing to play, rather bizarrely drowned-out the rest of the orchestra, turning the piece at times into a two-violin concerto. Still, there were many good things and it was a timely revival for this rather remarkable piece.

Elisabeth Leonskaja. Photograph: Jean MayeratSchumann’s Piano Concerto (originally a one-movement Fantasy for piano and orchestra) is an elusive piece despite its popularity (and being concurrently performed in the Royal Festival Hall on this evening). It needs a pianist not only able to negotiate the finger-twisting games of the finale, but also the deeply poetic and chamber-music qualities of the first two movements. Elisabeth Leonskaja revelled in these exchanges with the orchestra, which included particularly fine contributions from Cho-Yu Mo (clarinet) and David Powell (oboe), whose eloquent playing added much to the work’s more lyrical moments. It was again the element of ‘fantasy’ that seemed to be lacking – the pianist wrong-footed herself on a couple of occasions and, especially in the first movement, momentum flagged. This pedestrian pace continued into the finale – not much glee, but once again, the wind section played a starring role and Leonskaja seemed happier when involved in dialogue. The qualities missing from the concerto surfaced to great effect in Leonskaja’s encore – a heart-stopping account of Chopin’s E flat Nocturne (from Opus 9), fluid and elegantly, beautifully done.

Then to the final instalment in the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s admirable series of Martinů symphonies. Although the first five symphonies appeared in quick succession during the early-1940s, the last, not initially intended as Symphony No.6, was premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra some years later in 1953, conducted by Charles Munch. Whatever the title, the work is one of Martinů’s most personal utterances and one of his greatest works. Jiří Bělohlávek is devoted to this music (here conducting without a score) in a performance of particular insight, energy and vibrancy, whilst still capturing the spontaneity of Martinů’s conception. Bělohlávek penetrated Martinů’s sometimes-dense textures, highlighting the vivid instrumental colours of the first movement and the mysterious swirling figures that recur to haunt the long, lyrical lines that serve both as contrast but also act as a kind of longing by an artist in exile. The second movement was rhythmic and incisive, powerful but never overwhelming, whilst the closing bars of the finale, completing this extraordinary work, in effect a Bohemian chorale, nostalgic and not a little sad, was beautifully phrased. This brought to an end a staggeringly good performance. Why can’t we hear these symphonies, or those by Honegger, more often, instead of wall-to-wall Mahler and Shostakovich?

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