Brno Philharmonic Orchestra at The Anvil

Taras Bulba
Cello Concerto No.1, H196
Jealousy (Zárlivost)
Symphony No.8 in G, Op.88

Laura van der Heijden (cello)

Brno Philharmonic Orchestra
Dennis Russell Davies

Reviewed by: David Truslove

Reviewed: 13 October, 2022
Venue: The Anvil, Basingstoke, England

A Czech orchestra playing Czech music might ordinarily have generated a healthy audience at any concert venue. Whether owing to unfamiliarity with Martinů or Janáček’s gruesome tale of suicide and torture, the Anvil was disappointingly half-full. Nevertheless, the commitment of Dennis Russell Davies and the Brno Philharmonic was undimmed.

Certainly Taras Bulba blazed with conviction, although had Russell Davies controlled momentum a little more, climaxes would have been more effective. If anything, one or two instruments were a little too prominent in the hall’s bright acoustic – not least tubular bells and timpani. Given this is a portrait of a Ukrainian Cossack fighting to free his countrymen from Polish tyranny, the playing needed to be vibrant and that’s exactly what we got. There was just the right clamorous sonority for the first movement’s battle sequence and later a shrieking clarinet for the death of Ostap. Strings earlier had been incisive too in their graphic ‘weeping’, but it was the third movement’s pageantry that brought edge-of-seat excitement, even if the electronic keyboard as organ substitute added little to the drama.

Janáček’s dramatic instincts were to influence the decision to drop his overture Jealousy, an impactful curtain-opener originally intended for Jenůfa. By the time the opera was completed in 1904, he had created a separate life for this short piece of powerful expression, to which the Brno players responded with terrific gusto.

Between the Janáček offeringsMartinů’s Cello Concerto No.1 (1930 with revisions in 1939 and 1955) gave Laura van der Heijden an opportunity to demonstrate her prowess in a work that combines Czech folk idioms with a Gallic clarity. Just occasionally she was overwhelmed by the orchestra in the energetic outer movements, but she conveyed the troubled melancholy of the beautiful central panel with compelling eloquence, forging a brief but gratifying partnership with the viola leader, both finding an emotional depth and intensity. There was no shortage of playfulness in the breezy Finale, its poignant rumination bringing poetic delights from van der Heijden, the soul of her Ruggieri cello taking wing.  

Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony was played with much affection, Russell Davies allowing the first movement’s grandeur and exhilaration their full due. Bonhomie and autumn bonfires came through in the Adagio, its birdsong suitably winsome and resplendent at climatic moments. Hints of ball-gowns were well caught in the third movement, though its courtly elegance at times felt inflexible. Nothing leaden about the shapely Finale, where finely honed quasi-nobilmente cellos and rollicking horns closed an exuberant account.

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