Czech Music @ Maida Vale

Variations on the Theme and Death of Jan Rychlík
The Parables, H367
A Fairy Tale, Op.16

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jakub Hrusa

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 15 February, 2007
Venue: BBC Studio 1, Maida Vale, London

The BBC Symphony Orchestra’s concerts at its Maida Vale studio home can be relied upon for featuring unfamiliar music and artists, and this programme was no exception – providing a London debut for Jakub Hrusa, the 25-year-old Czech conductor on the threshold of an international career.

Hrusa’s choice of indigenous repertoire was well-balanced and provided a rare outing in this country for Otmar Mácha (1922-2006) – the Moravian-born composer who was among the leading Czech figures in the generation after Martinů, but whose music, like that of his contemporaries, made precious little headway in Western Europe during his lifetime.

Variations on the Theme and Death of Jan Rychlík (1964) pays tribute to a composer whose death, at only 48, inspired what is less a set of variations per se than an intensifying sequence of contexts for a theme (taken from Rychlík’s African Cycle) whose plangent expression underpins the alternation between passages of relative stasis and dynamism. These culminate in an explosion of superimposed textures, as provocative in its way as anything being written in Poland or Hungary, before finally subsiding into a subdued epilogue where elements of Rychlík’s theme are thoughtfully intermingled with recollections of earlier moments. Vividly dispatched by the BBCSO, this powerful fourteen-minute piece amply suggests that Mácha is a composer of whom more needs to be heard.

Although he is hardly an unfamiliar composer these days, only a fraction of Martinů’s vast output gets more than the occasional airing. The Parables (1958) is actually the second in a trilogy of triptychs (coming between Frescoes of Piera della Francesca and Estampes) that continue the line of formally-intuitive thinking exemplified by his Fantaisies symphoniques (Symphony No.6). Thus while none of these subsequent pieces is a ‘symphony’ as such, the freedom with which Martinů allows his material to unfold has a poise that is evidently symphonic.

In The Parables, this is evident in the evolution of clear-cut melody in ‘Parable of a Sculpture’, the expansion of variegated harmony in ‘Parable of a Garden’, and the unfolding of sustaining rhythm in ‘Parable of a Labyrinth’. Save for a tendency to hang-fire in the central piece, Hrusa made the most of the work’s formal cohesion and subtle but unmistakable idiom. If not quite top-drawer Martinů, The Parables is certainly representative of his ‘late’ style at its most engaging.

The programme ended with a surprisingly rare outing for Josef Suk’s A Fairy Tale (1900). Surprising because this suite, drawn from the incidental music to Julius Zeyer’s play “Radúz and Mahulena”, has a melodic generosity that ought to secure a ready public. Nor is the work other than lucid in its formal design, amounting to a symphonic suite whose themes have all been reworked intensively. Hrusa was relaxed but never inattentive in the evocation of ‘The immortal love of Radúz and Mahulena, and their sufferings’ – with its delectable solo violin melody (enticingly played by guest-leader Anna Colman), and baleful ‘death motif’ that pervades most of Suk’s later music – and brought the right lilting gait to the polka of ‘Playing at swans and peacocks’. Best, though, was his approach to ‘Mourning music’ – building the piece so its heightened emotion really came across. If the final depiction of ‘Runa’s curse and how love destroyed it’ seemed diffuse, this was because Suk’s ideas of a climactic synthesis was less assured than it later became: certainly Hrusa shaped the closing pages, in which the violin theme returns to blissful effect, with a sureness of touch so that the musical outcome was never in doubt.

A fine performance overall, then, and also a telling ‘showcase’ for a conductor of whom much can be expected. Hopefully Jakub Hrusa will be making his London concert debut before too long, and were the BBC ever to consider Suk for its Barbican weekend in January (for which format his select but significant output would be ideally suited), then it could engage few more sympathetic exponents.

  • Concert recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio 3

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