Bohemian Spring Series – 10th April

Cello Concerto [No.2] in B minor Op.104
Symphony [No.2] in C minor Asrael

Lynn Harrell (cello)
National Youth Orchestra of Great Britainconducted by Jirí Belohlávek

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 10 April, 2001
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Despite there being further concerts, this offering from the National Youth Orchestra felt like a natural culmination to the LSO’s Bohemian Spring series, featuring pieces from two related but temperamentally divergent composers.

Dvorák’s Cello Concerto (correctly designated No.2 in the programme, though with no mention of the early and not orchestrated A major concerto to enlighten the uninitiated) is among his warmest and most expansive works; ideal for the equally expanded NYO to test its powers of co-ordination. With a conductor as experienced and sympathetic as Jirí Belohlávek, this presented few problems. Reservations, not for the first time, came with the solo playing of Lynn Harrell; as emotionally committed as ever, his playing in recent years has developed a rasping tone above mezzo-forte that often inhibits pleasure. Passagework was gritty rather than intense, though there were some gripping moments, notably the chordal glissando up to the heart-stopping reappearance of the second subject in the opening movement. The rhapsodic musing of the Adagio and the easeful recollection of the Finale’s coda brought some heartfelt characterisation, but overall this was a performance to remember with decidedly mixed feelings.

That Josef Suk’s Asrael Symphony remains a comparative rarity in concert halls (this was the first performance in London for almost nine years) remains a sad reflection on the filleted nature of the orchestral repertoire. The work transformed Suk from an ever-promising composer to one of major stature, though the cost of his achievement was great. The death in 1904 of his mentor and father-in-law Dvorák inspired him to a symphonic memorial of major proportions; the death barely a year later of his wife (Dvorák’s daughter) Otylka transformed the nature of the commemoration from the artistic to the cathartic.

Completed in 1906, the work stands as a powerful harnessing of emotion with an unorthodox but viable symphonic design that Suk would hone in subsequent works. The impact of Mahler in the expressive scope and orchestral sonority is less remarkable than the sense of a creative personality being formed against heavy psychological odds.

At 54 minutes, Belohlávek’s account was a swift one, though rarely to the detriment of the music’s depths. The elaborated sonata-form of the first movement was grippingly drawn, with spectacular brass playing at climactic points, and a visceral response from the whole orchestra as C minor cuts remorselessly across the reprise: the composer in emotional and spiritual freefall. The ambivalence of the intermezzo, with its eerie held notes and funereal tread, was captured to perfection; while the scherzo’s overt menace was well realised, at a tempo not so fast as to undermine articulation in the orchestra’s response. The central section brought fleeting consolation, before a close of unequivocal force. The adagio was the one relative disappointment – its opening and closing realisations of loss stoical rather than moving, and the bittersweet tone of the main sections cramped in focus, though the beautifully articulated violin solos from leader Eleanor Fagg were alive to expressive nuance. From the brutal initial statement of the ’death motif’, the finale was forcefully and persuasively drawn; manic contrapuntal energy and sardonic parody subsumed into a climactic reckoning that is capped only by the coda – fatalistic but transcendent as it acknowledges things passed.

It is to be hoped that the musicians of the NYO are able to experience this powerful work in their professional careers, perhaps with a conductor as attuned to its expressive core as Belohlávek was in the present performance, and that many of those hearing the music for the first time will choose to experience it again in the future.

  • The Barbican welcomes the Czech Philharmonic and Vladimir Ashkenazy this Friday and Saturday – Mozart and Prokofiev (20 April), Strauss and Mahler (21 April)
  • The LSO concludes Bohemian Spring on Sunday 22 April with Janacek’s Glagolitic Mass and Dvorak’s Eighth Symphony conducted by Sir Colin Davis
  • All concerts in the Barbican Hall at 7.30pm
  • Box Office 020 7638 8891

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