Thursday 1 June 2017

Jiří Bělohlávek : tribute to the innovator and to the man

Jiří Bělohlávek, conducting Dvořák's Requiem in Prague, April, 2017
Jiří Bělohlávek died last night. He was only 71,  but such was his stature that his death feels like the end of an era. Indeed, he transformed the whole way Czech music is heard, and revealed the treasures of Czech repertoire to the world.  He was also a gentleman, with charisma and integrity.  Even though he didn't speak much English when he was appointed as Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 2005, he communicated his enthusiasm so effectively the BBC SO grew close to him.  As Chief of the BBC SO,  he had to give the traditional speech at the Last Night of the Proms., which he did three times. At first, he read from a script, but by 2012, he was so "at home" that he joked, ad libbed and interacted with the audience, like we were all part of a family. In retrospect, he seemed unwell, even then.

In the intervening years, Bělohlávek's bouffant mane disappeared, and he grew thin.  His pugnacious body language  gave way to frailty.  Yet his travails seemed to galvanize his musicianship.  On April 13th this year, he conducted Dvořák's Requiem with the BBC SO at the Barbican (read my review here).  He seemed fatigued, perhaps because he'd conducted it in Prague a few days before.  Yet he  was putting very deep feeling into the performance, so much so that the intensity was almost too hard to take.  Emotional truth is sometimes hard to take. Once the immediate impact  subsided I kept thinking and thinking about the music itself, and its meaning. That, not technical polish nor received tradition, is the sign of a truly great artist.  Everyone knows the recording with Karel Ancerl, but Bělohlávek reached into the true soul of the music   Last week, one of my friends had a presentiment  and checked Bělohlávek's schedule, to find that he'd cancelled concerts in May.  So perhaps that Dvořák's Requiem was Bělohlávek's farewell, though no-one quite expected it, a farewell to his two favourite orchestras and to audience who had grown to love him as if he were a personal friend. 

Through him, the BBC SO, the Barbican and London connected with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and with the National Theatre of Prague.  Bělohlávek reintroduced Czech opera and vocal music to Britain in Czech, revealing the pugnacious, vibrant quality of the original language, so essential to proper, idiomatic performance. This matters, since Britain was receptive to Czech music very early on.  Dvořák and Janáček wrote masterpieces for British audiences. Even Kaprálová premiered her work in London, where her friend and colleague Rafael Kubelik conducted at the Royal Opera House.  Britain discovered Czech music long before Mackerras, and rediscovered it again with  Bělohlávek  Who knows what might have happened had the communists not taken Czechoslovakia, forcing Kubelik into exile?  Read more HERE about  Bělohlávek's early career. Though Bělohlávek was assistant  to Vaclav Neumann, in many ways he was Kubelik's true heir. And Ancerl's, too, for that matter.

For more detail about a fraction of Bělohlávek's concerts in recent years 

Autumn Elegy: Mahler Das Lied von der Erde
Janáček : The Makropulos Affair Prom
Janáček Jenůfa Royal Festival Hall
Czech Philharmonic 120th anniversary concert, Prague
Smetana Dalibor : BBCSO Barbican
Dvořák The Jacobin 2012
Janáček Glagolitic Mass Prom
Mahler 8
Martinů Juliette, Magdalena Kožená
Janáček  : The Excursions of Mr Brouček
Janáček : Osud

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