Thursday, 24 July 2014

Bartók Shostakovich Bělohlávek Prom 7

Jiří Bělohlávek made a welcome return to the BBC Proms. Sakari Oramo is a good Chief Conductor of the BBCSO but Bělohlávek was unique. He conducted the BBC SO from 1995, becoming the first non-British Chief Conductor in 2006, and serving in that capacity until 2012. He then decided to concentrate on Prague. Our loss, for Bělohlávek was in a unique position to teach us repertoire we can't claim to know better than he.  He forged strong links between Czech musicians and Londoners, which remain. At the First Night of the Proms in 2011, he conducted  Janáček's Glagolitic Mass, to almost universal acclaim. Please read Mark Berry's review here.  Tonight, Valéry Gergiev will be conducting the piece, in Paul Wingfield's  less familair edition, so the performances will be very different.  When  Bělohlávek conducted The Last Night of the Proms in 2012, he was greeted warmly. He gave the traditional conductor speech, his command of the English language greatly improved. In the past, he'd struggled to read from a script. He ad-libbed comfortably, joked and led audience and performers like a seasoned Master of Ceremonies. Altogether a valediction, and well deserved.

At BBC Prom 7 at the Royal Albert Hall, we heard again what we'd missed. Bělohlávek's traverse of the long, slow first movement of Shostakovich's Symphony no 10 was purposefuL. This is a theme that can test an  audience's patience,  but Bělohlávek shaped its complex structure, showing how its themes unfold. The Allegro was suitably wild. Whether the section represents Stalin or not, this movement shakes up the order of the Moderato that came before. Jazzy influences sneak past. In the Soviet era, as in Nazi Germany, jazz meant subversion. When Bělohlávek conducted the DSCH themes, one could imagine the composer grinning sardonically. Bělohlávek's forte is his ability to suggest warmth and humanity,against all odds. Qualities sadly undervalued in this world.

This thoughtful reading of Shostakovich's 10th pulled the whole programme together. Shostakovich writes in different influences, breaking the monopoly of form. Earlier, we'd heard the.posthumous premiere of John Tavener's  Gnosis, dedicated to Sarah Connolly. The piece makes good use of the special qualities of her voice. Lovely legato, delicious to listen to, but the piece itself amounted to nothing much. At the end, a completely different melody comes in, a direct Mozart quotation, breaking the dreaminess, just as if a window had been opened to let in banal reality. A piece for the singer rather than the song.

Thank goodness for Bartók's Violin Concerto no 2, with Isabelle Faust. She's pretty much the most interesting person doing Bartók's two violin concertos. Indeed, in her hands, the pieces sing as true originals: she did intensive background work into their genesis, notation and interpretation. She's recorded them with Daniel Harding. Bělohlávek and Harding are completely different interpreters, but both bring insight. Faust wouldn't choose to work with them if she didn't understand how they'd work with her. Bartók weaves in themes and styles (even more so in the First concerto), negotiating the extreme technical challenges. What a a variety of techniques, superbly executed, and with exquisite poise.

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