Bohemian Spring Series – 8th March

Scherzo fantastique
Violin Concerto in A minor
The Fiddler’s Child

Sarah Chang (violin)
London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jiri Belohlávek

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 8 March, 2001
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Following his welcome revival of Dvorák’s Stabat Mater to open the LSO’s Bohemian Spring series, Jiri Belohlávek conducted a rounded selection from the Czech orchestral repertoire, opening with the delectable Scherzo fantastique by Josef Suk. A composer who has only recently ’come in from the cold’ outside of his native land, Suk’s long-term reputation rests on the small body of work initiated with the powerful Asrael Symphony. Written just over a year before that masterwork in 1903, the Scherzo only touches on Asrael’s emotional depths, which is not to deny its wonderfully capricious mood, given an ironic tinge through scoring which suggests more than a passing knowledge of Mahler’s Third and Fourth Symphonies, and to which the wistful cello theme provides ideal contrast. Belohlávek is a long-standing exponent of the piece, and while finesse was occasionally sacrificed at this rapid tempo, the personal stamp of Suk’s orchestration was everywhere apparent, above all in the keening central section. Well worth reviving whatever the context.

Dvorák’s Violin Concerto (1879) is among the least played but most appealing works in the standard repertoire. The segueing of preludial first and rhapsodic second movements, followed by a bracing rondo-finale, owes something to the precedent of Bruch’s G minor concerto, which it surpasses in personality and freshness of invention. An experienced concert performer at 19, Sarah Chang has certainly outgrown her prodigy beginnings. Indeed, at times in the outer movements, she seemed to be striving too hard to inject emotion into her interpretation, her tone coarsening under pressure. Yet better this than the ’auto-pilot’ approach taken by some of her peers, and the strength of feeling invested in the Adagio was as evident as the spontaneous rush of adrenalin when the Finale’s central interlude spills over into a reprise of the rondo theme. Belohlávek’s accompaniment was attentive and alive to the opportunities for musical display offered the soloist. The next five years should be ones to watch in Chang’s development of a personal interpretative style.

It’s only in a series such as this that Janacek’s orchestral ballad The Fiddler’s Child (1914) is likely to be revived, a pity. This resourceful and evocative piece contains his mature idiom in essence; not least the prominent violin solos – played with feeling by Alexander Barantschik – and searchingly imaginative string writing as a whole. The inspiration is a naturalistic folk-tale recalling the typically grim scenarios of Dvorák’s late symphonic poems, and the plangent expression that results finds a corollary in Janácek’s output with the opera Fate and the piano suite In the Mist: all products of the ’wilderness’ years, before the Prague premiere of Jenufa in 1916 transformed his musical standing.

And nothing so enshrines that eventual standing as the Sinfonietta (1926), Janácek’s testimony to Czech nationhood. A work Belohlávek must have given many times, surprise that he has not incorporated many of the textual changes in the critical edition – no stratospheric flutes and piccolos at the climax of the third movement, for instance – was offset by the sheer conviction with which he gauged the traversal from the opening fanfares, through the quirky sequence of movements, to the visceral excitement of the closing peroration. With the additional brass aligned across the rear of the platform, there was no mistaking the air of anticipation, which this fervent performance admirably fulfilled.

  • Bohemian Spring continues on Sunday 18 March with the LSO String Ensemble playing Dvorak and Suk, including both composers’ Serenades
  • On Wednesday the 21st, Sir Colin Davis conducts Martinu and Dvorak, the Seventh Symphony. Read Richard Whitehouse’s review of this concert
  • Jiri Belohlavek conducts Suk’s Asrael Symphony on 10 April
  • Box Office 020 7638 8891

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