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July 29, 2004

Bohemian Rhapsodies - Dvořák, Janáček, & the Prague Philarmonia

Posted by David Conway

BBC Promenade Concerts 2004
Škampa Quartet and Itamar Golan (piano)
Lunchtime Concert 19th July 2004

Prague Philharmonia
conducted by Jiří Belohlávek
with Magdalena Kožená (mezzo-soprano)
Evening concert 21st July 2004

David Conway will be providing regular music reviews for the Social Affairs Unit.

Twenty-five is the key number these days if you are a composer. If the current year differs from that of your birth or death by a multiple of that magic figure, you can be almost guaranteed at least a desultory appearance in the Proms season. And if there are others who fit this formula (or one like it – multiples of ten for example) to whom any connection can be found, however vague – hey presto, a handy formula which can be churned ad infinitum in the Proms prospectus, programme notes and announcers' commentaries. A shrewd career move therefore by Dvořák to die in 1904, 50 years after the birth of Leoš Janáček. The former is clearly this year's Proms champion with twenty works to be performed, whilst the latter comes in with a creditable nine. Only Mozart is in the same league in this 110th season.

I am delighted to hear music by either or both, but I do rather balk at this enforced pairing. Although the two were both born in the Austro-Hungarian empire in territory which today is within the Czech Republic, Janáček by his late twenties was already abandoning Dvořák's influence and all his masterpieces are based on rhythms and modalities that the older man would never have countenanced. It would be more interesting perhaps to listen to Janáček in the context of, say, Bartok and Enescu as a determined break-out from the Dvořák/Brahms legacy. Between the two composers are not only the historic and cultural differences between Bohemia and Moravia but also a spiritual chasm which was clearly displayed in the first of the season's lunch-time concerts in the Lecture Room of the Victoria and Albert Museum, when Janáček's first quartet 'The Kreutzer Sonata', was paired with Dvořák's Piano Quintet.

The Škampa Quartet played the Janáček with a profound commitment. At first emotion seemed rather restrained by the very dry acoustic of the Lecture Room, holding back the music's fury, but by halfway through the first movement the players had more than overcome this, gripping the audience with a continuous passionate discourse and dramatic interpretation. The sul ponticello interjections in the second movement had the viciousness of scissors slashing a photograph. This astonishing work is usually thought of as part of Janáček's 'late harvest', although much of it derives from a much earlier piano trio, now lost - another warning against lazy classification.

Unfortunately, after such a journey to the depths, the Piano Quintet, for which the Škampas were joined by Itamar Golan, could not shine to best advantage, despite a performance just as spirited in its way. It was just jolly, energetic and lovable, but unable to compete emotionally with the domestic violence which preceded it. Perhaps the pieces would have been better programmed the other way around.

Czechness continued with a vengeance later in the week with the Prague Philharmonia in the refurbished Albert Hall, conducted by their founder Jiří Belohlávek. After the enjoyable tootling of a Serenata by Vejvanovský (1633-93) – something which might perhaps have been dashed off by a Bohemian drinking companion of the great P. D. Q. Bach – we had arias by Mozart and his contemporary Mysliveček , songs by Novák (1870-1949), Martinů's Double Concerto for two string orchestras, piano and timpani, and Mozart's Prague Symphony.

The Hall is still unfavourable for smaller ensembles and the sound seemed often thinner than it ought to have been. (When I listened to this concert, and the Škampas's concert, repeated on the radio later in the week the improvement in balance and sonority was notable in both cases). This was to the disadvantage of the soloist, the mezzo Magdalena Kožená, who, though she looked ravishing as always, seemed in any case not entirely at ease. Perhaps this was not unconnected with the newspaper publicity of her association with a leading British conductor. (The announcer for the broadcast breezily commented on 'the many members of the audience who has come to see her' – perhaps as opposed to those who came to listen to her. The announcer also misinformed us that the Italians of the day, unable to pronounce his name, called Mysliveček 'Il Boemo' – the Bohemian. I groan that Hutton has done so little for the BBC’s accuracy. As it happens, they called him 'Venatorini', 'the little hunter', a literal translation of his name). Kožena seemed to treat the Mysliveček aria as a warm-up for the Mozart, a pity because it is musically a fine example of an 'anger aria', and could have done with a bit more punch. The Mozart concert arias were delivered with more assurance; but it was in the four Straussian 'Melancholy Songs' of Novák, written in 1906, that Kožena gave her best - accurate, rich and convincing.

The Martinů piece is a puzzle. Perhaps it would be less confusingly entitled 'Concerto for Double String Orchestra (with piano and timpani)' so than audiences are not led to expect any spectacular display by the last two. Like much of the composer's music, it doesn't really seem confident. There is a lot of scurrying around, but it never delivers the goods like – say – Bartók's 'Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste', which was written two years earlier in 1936. Part of the audience – perhaps it was the watchers, rather than the listeners - was for some reason motivated to clap between the movements. This dismal trend seems to be spreading in orchestral concerts and I shall perhaps write about it in more length on another occasion. It was devastating to this piece, in which melodic and harmonic links between the movements are essential to what atmosphere it has.

Belohlávek's conducting of the Prague Symphony was however an absolute triumph. with the perfect bounce and glow of an ideal opera buffa. Excellent attention to detail and texture, (and responsiveness by the players) made this pure delight. Belohlávek is a dark horse contender for taking on the BBC Symphony after the departure of Leonard Slatkin at the end of this season. This performance by itself would put him high on the list.

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David - I note with interest your little aside concerning applause between movements, and I look forward to a possible piece on this from you in the future.

I thought I'd get my two-pennorth in on this in advance of such a piece, if I may. Some pieces of classical music link from movemment to movement musically and emotionally - applause clearly can ruin a carefully held, finely judged atmosphere. Some of these pieces are 'through composed' (Saint Sanes 'cello concerto in a, for example), others are not (I sometimes wonder with some pieces whether the through-composition is all musical, or is in fact to stop people's attention wandering, or tp prevent applause in the wrong place).

However, I really dislike the classical 'establishment' view that applause should be reserved for the end of pieces only. There are many pieces, some concertos, which are really "show off" music, both for performer and composer. Others have an atmosphere which can be enriched by allowing an outburst of appreciation. For these, I see no reason not to applaud where deserved, though clearly ends of movements would be preferable!

I often compare with jazz gigs, where soloists playing well receive applause from whoever thinks they deserve it when they think they do. Equally, think back to when much classical music was written. Handel wrote much music for effectively the equivalent of Glastonbury, Haydn needed the Suprise symphony to shock people, and even the likes of Rossini and his compatriots were writing music that was performed in places where men would be sitting at tables playing cards, smoking, drinking, chatting... The birth of the modern audience who sit rigid in silence throughout concerts is interesting - I wonder if it is part of the lack of appeal of these sorts of concerts to young people?

As a note to end on, I have been at Ronnie Scotts twice in the last fortnight (wonderful place), where good music played excellently is greeted with enthusiasm - and no talking during... and no-one hesitates to have a little natter during music played in a more 'ordinary' manner. It's up to the musicians and artists to captivate their audience with magic, perhaps, rather than relying on a silently seated captive audience.

Just some thoughts for your possible writing on this topic...



Posted by: Alexander Van Ingen at July 29, 2004 09:14 PM
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