Reviewed by: Peter Reed
Reviewed: 3 April, 2022
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Apparently, Jan Václav Voříšek was very good company, and so is his Symphony in D, sadly the only one the Bohemian composer wrote during his short life. He was born in the year of Mozart’s death and died of tuberculosis in 1825, aged thirty-four. Voříšek worshipped Mozart, but it was Beethoven and Schubert – both of whom held Voříšek in high regard when he was living in Vienna and both of whom he predeceased – who came more to mind in this genial and stylish performance from the Philharmonia and its erstwhile Principal Guest Conductor Jakub Hrůša. His biggest insight in the Voříšek was to assert Beethovenian structural points at the same time as softening them with Schubertian lyricism at its most benign; and, bearing in mind Voříšek composed primarily for piano, Hrůša found much to reveal in the classically conventional scoring of this trumpet-and-drums Symphony, including a Central European, wiry sound from the woodwind, and, in the lovely slow movement variations the sort of Bohemian longing that anticipates the Czech nationalism of Dvořák. The Scherzo and Finale gave Hrůša many opportunities to show off his mercurial rapport with the orchestra in some superb and playful ensemble playing. In short, this performance of Voříšek’s Symphony was full of character and was irresistible.
There’s no escaping Hrůša’s charisma and powers of communication, which dominated the performance of Beethoven’s Choral Symphony. Apart from the addition of trombones, the orchestra stayed at the same size, with just four double basses, which, with the natural trumpets, tended towards a bright, focused sound. Indeed, it was a bit too bright for the famous opening, one that went on to haunt late-romantic symphonists. Here it filled the hall rather than its presence defining the void – this was the volcanic aspect of creation, bigger on energy than mystery. Hrůša’s overview was lean and elemental, combining period manners with modern tonal security, which shone out in the brilliantly played Scherzo where you could scarcely put a cigarette paper between Beethoven’s razor-blade counterpoint and Hrůša’s rhythmic drive, urged on by Antoine Siguré’s lethal timpani punctuations.
After a welcome retreat from Beethoven at his most defiant and public, Hrůša took the Philharmonia into a remarkably serene performance of the Adagio, in which mobility and some perfectly judged rubato floated on his steady sense of pace, with the sort of control and inwardness solo pianists strive for in the late Sonatas. Hrůša was just as inspirational in Beethoven’s recollections of the first three movements before he took up the reins of the Finale, a relatively brief episode that with his sure sense of drama expanded the Ninth’s scope immeasurably. And if you ever wanted confirmation of quite how electrifying the Finale is, the young American bass Soloman Howard’s eruption into ‘O Freunde’ delivered it. His voice is big and very physical, as is his imposing presence, and his singing coped easily with the mix of lyricism and muscular declamation Beethoven demands. Nicky Spence’s military-style solo was Heldentenor-victorious, the majestic Russian-American soprano Lyubov Petrova gleamed incisively, although she missed a climactic top B that was certainly within her range; and the German mezzo Hanna Hipp provided focus and balance in the ensembles. The Philharmonia Voices and Crouch End Festival Chorus responded magnificently to everything Beethoven and Hrůša required of them, capping this memorable, thoroughly prepared performance.