Philharmonia Orchestra/Belohlavek
Dvorák/Janácek Series Part One/Concert 2 (29 January)

Smetana
The Bartered Bride – Overture
Dvorák
Violin Concerto in A minor, Op.53
Symphony No.7 in D minor, Op.70

Midori (violin)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Jiri Belohlavek


Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 29 January, 2004
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

This concert was a joy from first note to last, the combination of musicians and music near ideal. Belohlavek rarely fails to draw the best from whatever orchestra he is conducting – I have now heard him with seven – but his collaboration with the Philharmonia seems particularly rewarding, the orchestra’s warm string tone, internal balance and its affinity with core European repertoire mirroring Belohlavek’s own strengths.

It’s rare to conduct a whole programme, including a concerto, from memory; this, though, is what Belohlavek did here. Dispensing with a concerto score might be thought foolhardy. However, with Belohlavek in total control, this was no gimmick or ego-trip; and, anyway, he and Midori were of one mind interpretatively.

The Bartered Bride Overture made a fizzing start, performed with panache and affection. In the concerto, a work long-championed by her, Midori played with passionate commitment, the piece given a large-scale, unashamedly heroic bent. This posed a few problems in the first movement, not so much of balance, more the feeling that Midori, whose tone is not particularly big, was occasionally working rather too hard. However, she has many virtues, not least her fabulous soft playing (helped by remarkable control of her bowing arm), and her ability to turn a phrase and make an audience collectively catch its breath. The slow movement’s final bars evoked the most magical response from soloist and orchestra alike, and the feel-good finale’s episodes were vividly characterised.

First performed in London in 1885, the Seventh Symphony is often said to be Dvorák’s most Brahmsian, for which read darker hued and least Bohemian. It’s a score teeming with inner life and detail, which make the orchestration of the 8th (and to a lesser extent the New World) seem straightforward by comparison. Interestingly, at the hands of a Czech conductor, the first two movements sounded more Germanic than usual, Belohlavek, a fine Brahmsian, making the 7th seem like the best German symphony written by a Czech. Perhaps the poco a poco accelerando at the first movement’s climax was lacking the last degree of abandon, but how satisfying the unfussy build-up had been. The Poco Adagio was more poco than adagio but played with real eloquence and depth, the oboe’s valediction sounding for a moment like Delius, whilst the Scherzo was understated, dynamics carefully graded and the rhythm tightly coiled so that the cross rhythms really registered. The finale drove forward without any of the usual agogic distortions – maybe the final peroration was held back a fraction, but this was a thrilling and satisfying performance.

There are conductors who, vampire-like, live off the blood of orchestras, contributing nothing much and taking everything; then there are conductors whose contributions enhance an orchestra, maximising its virtues. Belohlavek belongs to the latter group. One hopes that the Philharmonia will invite him back – besides the expected Czech composers, he’s also one of the great unsung and most stylish of Mahler conductors, an affinity perhaps not that surprising given Mahler’s own Bohemian origins.

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