Tag Archives: Dvorak

BBC SSO / Samuel

City Halls, Glasgow

It is likely that there were few arts organisations whose immediate response to COVID-19 was to make a SWOT analysis to inform their planning, but it has nonetheless become commonplace to point out some benefits to be appreciated as a result of the restrictions made necessary by the pandemic.

With social distancing limiting the size of musical ensembles and travel prohibition making the scheduled appearances of guest soloists and conductors impossible, there has been a focus on the wealth of international and indigenous talent that is resident in Scotland. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra in particular has been able to let a wider audience see its players in many different chamber music combinations.

This programme from the BBC Scottish was in some respect much more like a programme that the SCO might have undertaken pre-pandemic, with a previous or current leader of the orchestra directing from the violin. But it is also true that even the much larger RSNO has ventured down that road recently, tackling Beethoven symphonies without a conductor and emerging with credit from the exercise.

Battling through the health emergency to meet its commitments, with changes of conductors and soloists, this was perhaps the first time the SSO used the situation to highlight the talent it has within its ranks, and what a buoyant uplifting experience it was.

It is not as if we did not know how good the orchestra’s wind principals are. Stella McCracken (oboe), Yann Ghiro (clarinet), Julian Roberts (bassoon) and even newer member Alberto Menendez Escribano (horn) have all been in the ranks for some years, distinguishing concerts with their soloing.

That quartet had the spotlight for Mozart’s other Paris Sinfonia Concertante, from the year before the one for violin and viola that he probably played himself. Although designated a Kochel catalogue number, it is still not entirely accepted as being by him, in the absence of an autographed score.

If someone else did write it, they have surely been denied credit for a lovely piece of work, which gives all four of the wind instruments a platform, and the interweaving lines of the SSO players were beautifully captured in this broadcast.

At the heart of many an SSO concert, however, is its distinctive string sound, and with leader Laura Samuel directing from the concert-master’s seat, this programme was really a celebration of that strength. If the Mozart is not strongest in that department – in some respects the root of doubts about the score’s authenticity – it was bracketed by Czech works that more than compensated.

Dvorak’s Serenade for Strings was hugely important for the composer, an early triumph on his rocky road to a professional career, and there is ebullience in every bar. That was what came across in this performance, liberated from any directorial interpretation that may have come from the podium. The tempo was not too strict to allow the music to flow naturally, with some lovely languid moments in the rich string sound.

The concert began with a briefer, less familiar, but also beautifully scored piece by Dvorak’s son-in-law Josef Suk, Meditation on an old Czech hymn “St Wenceslas”. Originally written for the Bohemian String Quartet, of which Suk was a member, it was a riposte to the occupying Austrians’ requirement that their national anthem be played at all concerts. Its political message may be obscured by distance and time, but the powerful community feeling it expresses was transmitted to an audience starved of the communal enjoyment of live music by the eloquence of the SSO strings.
Keith Bruce

RSNO / Helsing / Roffman

RSNO Centre, Glasgow

If you can prise your violin-playing daughter away from Nicola Benedetti’s home-schooling videos, this is the concert for her. During an earlier lockdown, RSNO co-leader Sharon Roffman contributed some music for young people to the orchestra’s transmissions from home, and she proves as fine a teacher here in her spoken introductions to the two works on which she is the soloist, Dvorak’s Romance for Violin and Florence Price’s Second Violin Concerto. With Associate Leaders Emily Davies and Lena Zeliszewska on the orchestra’s front desk for this concert, the RSNO is far from short of female role models for violin students.

Taken together with an excellent programme note by Charlotte Gardner, the Dvorak Romance is placed beautifully in context before a very fine performance – it is a work that seems to blossom in the environment of a smaller number of socially-distance musicians.

The Price, on the other hand, requires a full band, complete with harp and celesta, tuba and three trombones. It is a late work by the African-American composer that was salvaged from the demolition of her summer home after her death, and in her own introductory remarks, Finnish conductor Anna-Maria Helsing – making her RSNO debut – implies that the score needs a deal of creative interpretation for it to work. However true that is, the piece sounds the real deal here, rather more expansive than its brevity might suggest and quintessentially of the USA, with harmonisations that are redolent of vaudeville and musical theatre.

The pieces that open and close the concert fare less well by comparison with those. It is hard to be definitive about Richard Thompson’s Suite from The Mask in the Mirror, because this seems a mere taster of a work that is already at a remove from the score of the opera premiered in New Jersey in 2012. While the full suite is a concert version of the narrative, this Scottish premiere of any of the music is just two movements from that. While they lack nothing in drama and atmosphere, with compelling orchestration, it is context that is singularly lacking.

But with Dvorak’s Symphony No 8, it is the composer who is sold a little short. Although its tunes are less well-known than those in No 9 “From the New World”, they are there in profusion. The balance that Helsing produces from the musicians in this performance, however, does not make the best of those melodic hooks, and they are often lost in the mix.

If the first movement could use more delicacy of touch, the third movement waltz is also less than light on its feet, and as for the instruction on the Finale, “Allegro, ma non troppo”, well, there is never really much danger of that. 
Keith Bruce

RSNO / Lowe / Cargill

RSNO Centre, Glasgow

A “technical issue” resulted in Friday’s planned release of the RSNO’s first 2021 digital concert being delayed until Saturday. Given this glitch offered a version that chopped the final bars off Dvorak’s New World Symphony, the decision to delay was wise. There’s nothing worse than experiencing the same fate as the long distance runner whose legs buckle a few metres short of the finish line.

Be assured, the rectified version takes us all the way, with a rousing end to a performance in which conductor James Lowe and the orchestra finally feel at home with each other and a mutually conducive spark is lit. 

Lowe was brought in to replace Ryan Bancroft and a programme originally intended to feature violinist Midori in the world premiere on Glanert’s Violin Concerto No 2. In its place comes the popular Dvorak symphony and Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder with mezzo soprano Karen Cargill.

The opening work remains unchanged, Errollyn Wallen’s surging Mighty River, written in 2007 to commemorate the bicentennial of the signing of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act. Like the political momentum gathering pace then for a lengthy ongoing liberation campaign, Wallen’s metaphor of choice is the unstoppable power of water, its vitality, the unceasing journey that a mighty river undertakes in search of the open sea.

Familiar tunes make their presence felt: Amazing Grace feeds through the opening bars like a shared opening prayer; the spiritual Deep River more immersed within the later fabric of increasingly frenetic textures. The language encompasses echoes of Copland’s fresh-faced dissonances, powering minimalism à la Reich or Adams, besides Wallen’s own lyrical, occasionally mystical fingerprints. It is a compendium of 20th/21st century Classical Americana underpinned by incessant, pulsating energy. 

This performance doesn’t quite get to grips with all that. It’s more matter-of-fact than edge-of-the-seat, more routine than gripping, especially where the vital underpinning rhythmic motor seems more content to chunter along than switch to overdrive.

Cargill’s presence in the five songs that make up Wagner’s gorgeous Mathilde Wesendonck settings provide a welcome instant transformation. The rich sonority of her lower range channels their emotional depth from the offset, Cargill brilliantly fractious in Stehe Still – a touch of the Wagnerian nasties – and glowingly ecstatic in Im Treibhaus, spine-chillingly intense in Der Engel and aptly dreamy in Traume.

Hans Werner Henze’s orchestration poses its own challenges, the highly exposed solo lines and curious colour mixes dependent on super-refined management. While Lowe’s direction provides inoffensive, efficient support for Cargill, it struggles to find the vital essence of Henze’s weird and wonderful intentions. They are more convincing than they sometimes appear here.

No lack of conviction when it comes to the Dvorak, despite niggling aspects of (recording?) balance that occasionally vulgarise the opening Allegro molto. Thereafter, there’s the leisurely Largo, sprightly Scherzo and wholesomely conclusive Allegro con fuoco to seal the deal on a programme that takes its time to fully settle.
Ken Walton

Available to view on www.rsno.org.uk

SCO : Czech music

Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

Hot on the heels of her star turn in the SCO’s first 2021 foray into the Igor Stravinsky jubilee repertoire, The Soldier’s Tale, the chamber orchestra offers a Wild Night in the company of percussionist Louise Goodwin in its latest online concert.

And that’s not the half of it, because this recital – of mostly 20th century Czech music – also includes two colourful visits to the theatre and kicks off with some charming, but rarely heard, salon music. Dvorak, the composer of the latter, and Martinu, whose music ends the programme, are the better-known names, but Scotland can boast particular connections with the other two: Hans Krasa and Pavel Haas. 

Krasa’s children’s opera Brundibar was a rediscovered centrepiece in the exploration of the music composed in Terezin concentration camp at Stirling’s Macrobert Arts Centre some years back, and the string quartet named after Pavel Haas, who was also imprisoned there and also died in Auschwitz, made its UK debut at Orkney’s St Magnus Festival after winning a European competition at which Sir Peter Maxwell Davies was a judge.

There is an elegant simplicity to the four easy pieces – “Miniatures” in his catalogue – that Dvorak composed in 1887 for himself and two friends to play, performed here by violinists Ruth Crouch and Amira Bedrush-McDonald with Brian Schiele on viola, and the closing Elegie hints at some of the darkness that surrounds the music that follows. Piano, percussion, flute, piccolo, clarinet and trumpet join the strings for the Brundibar Suite, arranged from the opera’s full score for the Nash Ensemble by David Matthews in 2011, and faithful to the instrumentation Krasa had to work with in Terezin.

The cabaret feel to the band is particularly evident from the music’s percussive edge, not just in Goodwin’s hands but also those of pianist Aaron Shorr and Shiele’s banjo-imitating pizzicato viola. The seven short movements of the suite end with a march that is easier to imagine a battalion in step with than the one in Martinu’s louche four-movement La Revue de Cuisine. 

Martinu made this suite for sextet from the music he composed for a bonkers ballet about the private lives of kitchen utensils, written in Paris in 1927. As well as some wonderful writing for Eric de Wit’s cello, it is coloured by the bassoon of Paul Boyes at the top of its range and the selection of mutes varying the voice of Peter Franks’ instrument in a style the trumpet section in Duke Ellington’s band knew well.

That promised Wild Night is the 4th Movement of Pavel Haas’ String Quartet No 2 “From the Monkey Mountains” for which the composer specified the defining addition of percussion, a score detail often ignored in string quartet performances. Not only does Louise Goodwin’s contribution here emphasise the jazz influences in the music, in this context it underlines the sadder question of where both Haas and Krasa may have taken their music given the opportunity to exchange ideas with artists elsewhere that Martinu was fortunate to enjoy.
Keith Bruce

This performance is available to view via the SCO’s Facebook page and YouTube channel until February 14.