Sunday, July 24, 2011

Prom 8 Review

Dvorák: Cello Concerto in B minor
Smetana: Ma Vlast

Jean-Guihen Queyras (cello)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jiri Belohlávek (conductor)

B (A for the Dvorak, C for the Smetana)

What has happened to Jiri Belohlavek?!? I know that Dvorak and Smetana is the music of his homeland, but that alone cannot account for the sense of urgency we've heard from his performances at the Proms this year. Has he, at the age of 65, transformed into a great Maestro?

This was a concert of two enormous pieces. First was the most passionate, viscerally involving performance of Dvorak's Cello Concerto heard in many a moon. The soloist, French cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras, is a cellist with an enormous, gorgeous high-fat sound - a gorgeousness he is unhesitant to abandon when the music demands. All throughout, I was very much of the largeness of spirit you'd find from Heinrich Schiff or Lynn Harrell (who made a stunner of a recording of this piece thirty years ago with Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia). The style was romantic to a fault, with more freedom and flexibility than most soloists ever dare. Belohlavek and the BBCSO matched him rubato for rubato, extreme for extreme.

Unfortunately, the greatness of this ever-fresh warhorse came at the price of a piece that should never be ventured lightly. This concert had the extremely dubious distinction of giving the Proms premiere of Smetana's Ma Vlast. It is one of the absolute zeniths of nineteenth century music, and it only took 117 years for the Proms to get to it.

There are certain pieces that require a masterful hand. Whenever you hear an orchestra other than the
Vienna Philharmonic play Johann Strauss, however expert, something feels missing. The placement of the second beat is off, the flexibility of the phrase doesn't feel natural, the sound of the orchestra doesn't have the mahogany Viennese timbre.

(How Ma Vlast should sound)

The Czech Philharmonic has the same patent on Ma Vlast. It's doubtful that any other orchestra ever played it 10% as many times. Whenever you hear other orchestras, Ma Vlast sounds weighed down by lead in comparison. You miss the razor sharp execution, those amazingly short Czech staccatos (it's a real thing), the woodland-sounding wind instruments, the thin and piercing brass. There is no orchestra in the world as airy and agile-sounding as the Czech Philharmonic.

But even if a performance is fated to be a second-tier copy of the original, they can at least try. This piece was just plain under-rehearsed. Instrumentalists missed their cues, at the opening the harps were simply not coordinated (in a passage for which Smetana would lost his temper if a conductor ever asked for two harps to play together), and the orchestra were not responsive to Belohlavek's attempts at tempo changes. At the climax of the entire piece there was a moment when the strings stayed in tempo while the other sections followed Belohlavek into an accelerando.

It was doubly a shame, because Belohlavek was clearly on top form, and when he takes his interpretation of Ma Vlast to Prague, it will be one to place alongside Talich, Jeremias, Ancerl, Neumann, Mackerras (as ever, the honorary Czech) and Šenja. But even so, there were great moments that. Time and again, Belohlavek managed to call attention to details that had escaped every other conductor's attention: the harp figures in The Moldau's Moonlight episode, the horns (for once) blended into the winds at the end of Sarka - in an otherwise especially raw sounding performance of that movement. The highlights of the piece were the performances of "From Bohemia's Woods and Fields" which had some marvelously quiet string playing; and the movement which followed, called Tabor. In Tabor, and sometimes in Blanik, the final movement, we heard playing from the whole orchestra of a precision and stylishness that could fool us into thinking we were hearing something from Prague. These are the least known movements of the cycle, and many think them the weakest. Belohlavek had clearly spent an abundance of time on them. But towards the end of Blanik, the concentration seemed to fade out as quickly as it had faded in, like an old transistor radio that selectively picks up the signal.

The whole of Dvorak's achievement easily makes him a greater composer than Smetana. But in his entire career, Dvorak neither attempted nor achieved a piece with the same ambition, scope and humanity of Ma Vlast. Smetana took Liszt's idea of Symphonic Poems, and put humanity into them. He then created a six-movement mega-symphony out of it. In reality, Ma Vlast is a four-movement symphony followed by a thirty-minute symphonic poem. It is one of the greatest, and strangest, extensions of Beethoven's challenge to let the symphony ask all the great questions of existence. Search for a similar achievement in nineteenth century music, and you will not find it again until Mahler. May it be far sooner before we hear another Ma Vlast at the Proms.

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