BBCSO Bělohlávek

Martinů
Memorial to Lidice
Fantaisies symphoniques (Symphony No.6)
Mozart ed. Beyer
Requiem in D minor, K626

Kate Royal (soprano)
Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano)
Robert Murray (tenor)
Matthew Rose (bass)

BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jiří Bělohlávek


Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 12 March, 2005
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Jiří Bělohlávek’s first concert since his appointment as the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s next Chief Conductor (with effect from the First Night of the Proms 2006) proved to be a distinguished augury of things to come. The programme itself, chosen some time ago, was a sombre affair and could hardly be termed celebratory. No matter, the quality of the actual music-making was a cause for celebration.

Martinů’s Memorial to Lidice remembers the village in Bohemia where in 1942, following Heydrich’s assassination, the Nazis massacred all the males, deported the females to concentration camps, and resettled the children with German families – an act of barbarism comparable to the destruction of Guernica. It evoked from Martinů a bitter musical response comparable to the vehemence of Picasso’s painting. Immediately apparent in this impassioned performance was the quality of sound, especially from the strings – not just intense but resonant and precisely calibrated, reminding that Bělohlávek numbered Celibidache amongst his mentors.

Even more outstanding was Martinů’s Sixth Symphony, written between 1951 and 1953 in response to a commission from the Boston Symphony for its 75th Season in 1955 (the BSO, under Bernard Haitink, brought Fantaisies symphoniques to the Proms in 2001). Once again the date of composition is important. By now Martinů was living in the States, Czechoslovakia having been taken over by the Communists in 1948, and the early post-war optimism of his Fourth Symphony had evaporated under the anxieties of the Cold War. Despite the symphony’s soaring lyricism, the work leaves a bittersweet taste and communicates an underlying bleakness as if Martinů now preferred to retreat rather than face the reality of the world around him. Conducting from memory, Bělohlávek displayed complete affinity for this disorientated music and communicated this to the BBCSO. Martinů was attracted by the spontaneity of its first interpreter, Charles Munch; under Bělohlávek there may have been a lack of fantasy, but this was a devastatingly articulate reading nonetheless.

The evening’s sombre mood continued with Mozart’s Requiem as edited, in the 1970s, by Franz Beyer, and seemed an odd bedfellow with what had gone before (as it did when Franz Welser-Möst and the LSO coupled it with Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony about a year ago). With a full complement of the BBC Symphony Chorus (about 145) and a youthful, well-balanced solo quartet, this was an impressive performance; the fugues sounded positively Handelian in their sturdy vigour.

Despite the large choral forces, Bělohlávek’s tempos were almost without exception crisp, sometimes a little too much so given the scale of the forces, especially in the ‘Hostias’ and the ‘Lux Aeterna’, which verged on the perfunctory. Elsewhere the large choir and slimmed-down orchestra (complete with basset horns and a chamber if present organ) were skilfully balanced with especially careful attention paid to choral dynamics. The ‘Confutatis’ and ‘Lacrimosa’, taken without a break, were rightly at the work’s beating heart and here one felt a keen understanding of the significance of the words, which is not always apparent in today’s performances of religious music. After a slightly nervous start Kate Royal made a good impression; Karen Cargill was forthright and sturdy; and Robert Murray and the resonant Matthew Rose made an impressive pairing.

Altogether an auspicious beginning to the new regime, the chemistry between the orchestra and a conductor at the height of his powers clear to see. One suspects that the appointment has come at exactly the right time for both parties.

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