Symphony No.8 in B minor, D795 (Unfinished)
Hukvaldy Songs *
Zdena Kloubová (soprano)
Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano)
Pavol Breslik (tenor)
Gustáv Beláček (bass)
David Goode (organ)
Czech Philharmonic Chorus of Brno
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Petr Fiala *
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 28 July, 2004
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
Not a concert that looked exactly promising – Schubert’s proto-Romantic soul-searching seemingly unrelated to Janáček’s exalted vision. Kurt Masur must have conducted the ‘Unfinished’ many times during his 50-year career, but this performance conveyed routine rather than experience. There were some finely-graded dynamics and moments of poignant expression in the first movement – but also a development section which comprehensively failed to ignite, and a coda all too matter of fact. The Andante began promisingly, but a fudged transition back to the first theme signalled a sequence of ensemble errors – something one would not have expected from the London Philharmonic given its recent form. Or was this merely an instance of programming on little or no rehearsal so as to fill out the orchestra’s (non-Glyndebourne) Prom appearance?
The evening itself was made worthwhile by the presence of the Czech Philharmonic Chorus of Brno. Founded as recently as 1990, there is a naturalness and spontaneity to its singing that made light of rhythmic intricacies in Janáček’s six Hukvaldy Songs. Arranged for mixed voices in 1899 from an earlier set of thirteen, these miniatures reflect warm but never sententious nostalgia for the composer’s home town: whether in the easeful emotion of “Ondras, Ondras”, the two complementary evocations of Hukvaldy Church, or the robust vigour of “The reeve’s daughter Hanka” – a reminder that Janáček’s approach to folksong is a direct precursor of Bartók’s. Eight minutes was not enough, however – and, given the extent of unaccompanied choral setting earlier in Janáček’s career, and the unlikely UK reappearance of this choir in the near future, it would have been worth devoting the whole of the first half of the Prom to this music.
Still, the CPC more than made its presence felt in the performance of Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass. Orchestrally, too, there were some good things: the Wagnerian growl of brass in the ‘Kyrie’, and ländler-like lilt in the opening portion of the ‘Credo’ – a reminder that, geographically as well as temporally, Janáček and Mahler are near-contemporaries. The opening of the ‘Sanctus’ was deftly moulded, though the movement as a whole did not escape stolidity, while the incendiary later stages of the ‘Gloria’ verged on the blowsy. Pavol Breslik, expressively fervent and tonally secure, was the pick of the soloists, and if the dynamics of the Albert Hall organ – back from its weekend indisposition – threatened to overreach, David Goode rendered the toccata-like solo with keen virtuosity.
A pity the closing ‘Intrada’ was a relatively tepid affair – but, try as one might to avoid comparison, Masur is simply not the equal of Charles Mackerras in this music. That Masur continues to opt for the ‘standard’ (i.e. simplified) version of the Mass is no great crime: what is a problem is his frequent emasculation of the music’s energy with a rhythmic evenness that became enervating over the work’s course. So the evening as a whole belonged to Brno and the CPC’s chorus-master Petr Fiala, who looked delighted at the ovation accorded his choir – as well he should!