The Frescoes of Piero della Francesca
Cello Concerto in B minor, Op.104
Mussorgsky orch. Ravel
Pictures at an Exhibition
Jiří Bárta (cello)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey
Reviewed: 25 February, 2005
Venue: Usher Hall, Edinburgh
This enterprising concert took in two visits to the art gallery. However, the image that will linger longest in the mind is the riveting performance of the Dvořák by the young and hugely talented Jiří Bárta.
The Usher Hall has heard many fine performances of Dvořák’s concerto – I vividly recall a young Jacqueline du Pré – but this one from Jiří Bárta was altogether special. There was a clear empathy and unity of purpose between soloist and conductor, not surprising since they have grown-up in the same musical culture and have recently recorded it together for Supraphon. One of Bárta’s teachers was Heinrich Schiff with whom Bělohlávek has performed the concerto, which may have also contributed to that sense of unity. Both Bárta and Bělohlávek were at one in their conception of the concerto as a concertante piece, and this was surely right. All too often the concerto can pose problems of balance, either because the soloist tackles the piece as a battle with the orchestra (and coming off a poor second) or because the conductor overwhelms the soloist. On this occasion balances were effortlessly solved with Bárta making chamber music with the orchestra’s woodwinds – special praise to the lambent, sensitive flute-playing of Katherine Bryan, and David McClenaghan, the excellent first horn – yet with the great orchestral climaxes welling up naturally under Bělohlávek ‘s assured hand.
This would not have counted for so much had Bárta’s playing not been intensely memorable in its own right. There is a warmth and generosity about his tone which takes one back to his other great (and undervalued) mentor, André Navarra. Especially satisfying was the extraordinary inwardness of Bárta’s soft playing throughout, and particularly the close of the slow movement and the finale’s epilogue with its final note seemingly held for an eternity before the orchestra’s all-engulfing crescendo.
Pictures at an Exhibition is a good barometer of an orchestra’s health. On this evidence the RSNO is resurgent, now playing with a depth of string tone which has not always been evident. Of course it helps that Bělohlávek is a great orchestral trainer and an acute judge of an orchestra’s capabilities. This was an impressive performance by any standards, visceral attack from the strings in ‘Gnomus’ and ‘Baba-Yaga’, resonant power and precise chording from the brass in ‘Catacombs’ and sensitivity from Matthew Smith’s saxophone solo in ‘The Old Castle’. Only a sub-standard euphonium solo in ‘Bydlo’ disappointed. In the past, major elder-statesmen conductors (Horenstein and Kurt Sanderling) have enjoyed a relationship with the RSNO, much to its benefit. A couple of weeks working with Bělohlávek each season would be a wonderful counterpoint to the new Music Director, Stéphane Denève.
Bělohlávek’s account of Martinů’s Frescoes was clearly a labour of love. This is a wonderful large-scale piece which, despite its soaring lyricism, will never achieve the popularity it deserves, so it was a courageous and welcome choice of opener.