From the House of the Dead – Suite [arr. František Jílek]
Donna Lennard (soprano)
Kensington Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 17 May, 2016
Venue: St John's, Smith Square, London
Janáček’s From the House of the Dead, his final opera written to his own libretto based on Dostoyevsky’s novel of first-hand experiences of being incarcerated in an inhospitable Siberian prison, entered the world in 1930 not as the composer intended, for with their master already dead (in 1928), two of his pupils added orchestration and an optimistic ending for the first performance. Not until three decades later were the hopeless conclusion and the sparer scoring restored.
František Jílek (1913-93, a fine Czech conductor who recorded for Supraphon, not least an impressive survey of Janáček’s orchestral music) made his Suite of three movements from the boosted version that first hit the streets. If not representative of what the composer intended, every note, gesture and colour sounded authentic here, the intense ‘Prelude’ (its motto taunts the mind long after), chains rattling, made for riveting listening, leader Alan Tuckwood playing a blinder. What follows – whether plays-within-plays, Don Juan a central character, as the prisoners attempt some in-House entertainment, or the positive ending symbolised by a wing-now-healed eagle being set free – continued the Kensington Symphony Orchestra’s close contact with the music, which turns on a sixpence in every particular (vivid, unpredictable, bittersweet, chilling, glowing), urged on by Russell Keable. However contrary to Janáček’s intention, the end was magnificently certain of redemption.
Next up, Judith Weir’s Natural History (1999), written for Dawn Upshaw and first-conducted by Simon Rattle, settings of words by Chinese philosopher Chuang-Tzu. The four movements – ‘Horse’, ‘Singer’, ‘Swimmer’, ‘Fish/Bird’ – require a fairly full orchestra, given much to do, and carried off colourfully and sonorously by the KSO. There was plenty to intrigue the ear, the music richly expressive from the off (not least in the solo cellos department). In terms of style, Weir leans more to Tippett than to Britten, and just occasionally Lennox Berkeley came to mind. There is much imagery and compassion in these settings, with ‘Fish/Bird’ being particularly poignant. Donna Lennard sang marvellously – with exemplary enunciation, fearless technique, vibrant word-painting and palpable commitment. In short, she was magnetic.
BBC aside, albeit a few years ago now, Bohuslav Martinů’s six Symphonies rarely get a shout in London’s concert halls, which is much to be regretted. They’re great! Martinů (1890-1959) came late to the form and then produced four more in close succession. However, he waited several years before writing Fantaisies symphoniques (Symphony No.6) for Boston and Charles Munch.
The Fifth was completed in 1945 and first heard in Prague two years later from Kubelík and the Czech Phil, the orchestra Martinů had been a violinist in. It’s a three-movement affair opening in suspenseful terms, as if storm clouds are brewing, but there is much blossoming too. As is typical of this composer, there are mechanicals and mosaics, and chorales and contradictions: maybe the latter trait reflects Martinů’s nomadic life – from Czechoslovakia to a many-year stay in Paris and then to America. He died in Switzerland.
Rhythmically buoyant for the most part, Martinů’s Fifth requires precision playing and also a big heart. It received both of those qualities from the KSO, moving along like clockwork and also issuing a warm handshake when required. The middle movement is curious in that it is marked Larghetto yet needs to move deftly on, and might be likened to Stravinsky’s neoclassical output, particularly his already-written Symphony in C, although Martinů’s invention has a wit that is all his own. In music that veers between despair and faith, the opening of the Finale is the most soul-baring, really quite affecting, the KSO strings coping admirably with the high-lying demands. After which festivities grow to a resounding conclusion, which may well reflect end-of-war optimism, although the wonderful Fourth ends in high spirits, too, and that’s a Symphony I hope Keable and the KSO will programme one day.
Certainly this Fifth was well-prepared, finely delivered on the night, and found Keable in masterly control of pacing, direction and dynamics to complete a typically ambitious concert, one that was a most excellent adventure. On June 27 this admirable partnership returns to St John’s for Walton, Britten and Elgar.