|Jakub Hrůša, Bmberger Symphoniker. photo: Roger Thonas|
The real First Night of the Proms 2019, for music lovers, Prom 2 with the Bamberger Symphoniker (Bamberg Symphonic Orchestra) conducted by Jakub Hrůša in Antonín Dvořák Violin concerto in A minor op 53 (1883), soloist Joshua Bell, and Bedřich Smetana Má vlast. At the start of this year's Prague Spring Festival, always opened with Má vlast - Hrůša led the Bambergers in a rousing performance at the Smetana Hall. Not all Má vlast have been performed on happy occasions. (Please read more here). If troubled times loom over Europe again, we need to honour the power of music to express national identity in a healthy, non-belligerent form.
"Bohemian Rhapsody" is a silly title, which trivializes the strong-minded individualism that has shaped Czech history and music. Dvořák's Violin concerto doesn't follow rules. An emphatic introduction from the orchestra, from which the soloist almost immediately takes equal command. Dvořák's themes are strongly defined - nothing timid here. The freedom of the violin line is thus built on firm foundations. The themes are endlessly varied, always inventive, always adventurous, The warmth of Bell's tone enhanced the sense of freshness. Thus the dumka theme in the Adagio felt poignant, a reflection perhaps on things past, (complete with the calls of hunting horns), before the Finale, in which the energy of the first movement returned resurgent. Hrůša, the Bambergers and Bell captured the sense of perpetual momentum that so often surfaces in Dvořák and, indeed, much music influenced by folk idioms, shaped as they are by the change of seasons on rural life, and the sturdiness of peasant character. Renewal, regrowth - might this be what Dvořák was "really" writing about ?
The Royal Albert Hall is far larger than the Smetana Hall in Prague, but this added dimensuon to the rich, dark timbre that's often been associated with the Bamberger Symphoniker. In his three years at the helm, Hrůša has restored the Bamberger's distinctive style. How wonderful it is to hear such inspirational, committed musicianship. Every player is of such a high standard that even small details give pleasure. Hrůša sets the tone straight away with Vyšehrad, the bedrock on which Má vlast is built. This refers to the castle on an outcrop on the river, reputedly the original settlement of the Bohemian people. The harps, positioned in pair on opposite sides of the orchestra, to emphasize their different functions, sounded beautifully liquid, suggesting the flow of the river, the source of fertility and life. Their music also references the instrument of an ancient bard who, in legend, played on the river's edge. As the pace picks up, the river reaches full flow, the Bambergers responding to Hrůša, playing with idiomatic ebullience. Pure-toned, rustling strings, surging torrents in the orchestra, played almost at breakneck speed, but meticulously defined.
Though each of the six symphonic poems that form Má vlast are unique, Hrůša never let slip the sense of architecture that is essential for coherent performance. In Vlatava, the flow is lighter, more transparent, suggesting that the river (for which read, the nation) is constantly refreshed from mountain sources, growing in strength and volume as they pass through the land. Horns are heard, evoking forests, mountains, a population living connected to Nature. forests. The suggestions of dance created a sense of circular, swirling movement. Hrůša understands the purpose behind the turbulence Smetana builds into this music: dance is energy, a metaphor for life and growth. The section Šárka is mythic and Z českých luhů a hájů (From Bohemia's Woods and Fields) is descriptive, but in musical terms these serve to enrich the saga, much in the way that a river is fed from different streams and different sources.
In Tábor and Blaník, the depth of the Bamberg sound truly pays off. The Bambergers may not be a Czech orchestra but with Hrůša, they understand what Má vlast means and why it matters, better than some. Tábor was a Hussite fortress, under siege and eventually defeated in violent massacres. Thus the quiet, tense introduction, developed through brass and timpani, which grows bolder as the hymn emerges. This is the Hussite anthem Ktož jsú boží bojovníci (Ye Who Are Warriors of God). (Please read more here about Hrůša's perceptive views on the way the Hussite hymn has influenced Bohemian music ). Massive, angular chords loom upwards, suggesting danger, and determined defiance. The rocky fastness of Vyšehrad again, now called on in more danergous times. The Hussites may be no more, yet their spirit, like the spirit of the bard and of Šárka, remains steadfast.
As Tábor draws to a close, quieter chords glow, like embers in ash. The buzz of strings and celli, intensified the sense of urgency, rushing "footsteps" and angular chords, suggesting a population in upheaval, the horn and military pipes suggestions of war.
In Blaník, there is a reference to St Wenceslaus, patron saint of Bohemia, who lived long before the Hussites, whom legend says. will return to save the nation in its hour of need. Smetana was writing at a time when the Hapsburgs ruled: not quite as extreme asituation as 1938, 1948 or 1968, but still at a time of occupation. Thus the riotous, lively finale suggests the spirit of freedom the river and its history represent will live again, joyful and revitalized. At the end, Hrůša shapes the majestic main theme again, so vividly that it seems that the spirit of the fortress in Vyšehrad stands eternally behind the Czech people, and indeed, all people who care about freedom and heritage.
A demanding programme, and one which required almost superhuman stamina from the players as well as from the audience. But so worthwhile! Two encores, the Polka and the Furiant from Smetana's The Bartered Bride. More circular dances ! not just because they're fun, but because they, too, show the source of vigour from which Smetana drew inspiration. This gloriously idiomatic Prom 2 with Hrůša and the Bambergers is one that will live on in memory.