Monday 22 July 2019

Prom 2: Dvořák’s lively folk-infused Violin Concerto was appropriately paired with another 19th-century Czech classic, Smetana’s symphonic suite, Má vlast

Dvorak: Violin Concerto - Joshua Bell, Bamberg Symphony, Jakub Hrůša - BBC Proms (Photo Chris Christodoulou)
Dvorak: Violin Concerto - Joshua Bell, Bamberg Symphony, Jakub Hrůša - BBC Proms (Photo Chris Christodoulou)
Dvořák Violin Concerto, Smetana, Má vlast; Joshua Bell, Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, Jakub Hrůša; BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall
Reviewed by Tony Cooper on 20 July 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A colourful celebration of a nation’s landscape, history and identity, Má vlast, truly sums up the spirit and defiance of the Czech people for independence

Dvořák’s Violin Concerto in A minor, composed in 1879, lies to a certain extent in the shadow of the composer’s Cello Concerto in B minor, composed in 1894-95. Although a much-loved part of the repertoire, the judgement of history certainly favours the Cello Concerto, the last solo concerto by Dvořák and written for his good friend, Hanuš Wihan.

Premièred by the English cellist, Leo Stern, in London in March 1896, it’s one of the most-frequently performed of all cello concerti and it’s admired for the richness of its orchestral music and for the lyrical writing for the solo instrument. The Violin Concerto, on the other hand, was premièred in Prague in 1883 by František Ondříček who also gave the London and Vienna premières.

Be that as it may, I really have no preference and like both works equally well and after the virtuosic, dazzling and flawless performance of delivered by Joshua Bell, hopefully, this has helped towards levelling history. Joshua Bell, who made his Carnegie Hall début in 1985 at the age 17 and a big favourite at the Proms, performed at the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday 20 July 2019 with the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra under Brno-born Czech conductor, Jakub Hrůša in a concert which paired Dvořák’s Violin Concerto with Smetana's Má vlast.

Effortlessly playing a ‘Huberman’ Stradivari violin dating from 1713, Mr Bell took four thunderous curtain-calls and returned the audience’s favour by playing an encore with the leader of the orchestra Ilian Garnetz and the leader of the viola section, Lois Landswerk, a lovely and melodious romance by the man of the moment, Antonín Leopold Dvořák.

The concert was billed ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ (Freddie Mercury quickly sprang to mind!) and to this end the second half was dedicated to that great, powerful and nationalistic work by Smetana, Má vlast (My homeland), a set of six symphonic poems composed between 1874 and 1879.

Smetana combined the symphonic poem form in Má vlast - a colourful celebration of a nation’s landscape, history and identity - pioneered by the likes of Franz Liszt with the ideals of nationalistic music currently running high in the late 19th century. Each poem depicts some aspect of the countryside, history or legends of Bohemia.

Originally, the six pieces were conceived as individual works and they received separate premières between 1875 and 1880. The première of the complete set, however, took place on 5th November 1882 in Žofín Palace, Prague, under Adolf Čech.

Although extracts from Má vlast had featured at the Proms since 1902 it was not until 2011 that all six component symphonic poems were given in sequence in a single concert with the BBC Symphony Orchestra directed by its then chief conductor and Czech national, Jiří Bělohlávek.

Therefore, I guess, opportunities to hear Má vlast in its entirety do not come up that often so it proved good programming and equally good programming, I felt, pairing the work with Dvořák’s Violin Concerto.

Inspired by Czech history and mythology, Ma vlast is virtually stamped in the DNA of the Czech nation. Today you’ll even hear the main motif from the first poem, ‘Vyšehrad’ (Upper Castle), a historic fort located in Prague, bleeped out before every announcement in Prague Central railway-station. An avid train traveller, I must listen more carefully when I’m next there!

The second poem ‘Vltava’ (Moldau) contains Smetana’s most famous tune of all and Maestro Hrůša and the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra excelled in communicating to a packed and excited house the life, sounds and flow of one of Bohemia’s greatest rivers, highlighted in the poem, meandering through woods and meadows before swirling into St John’s Rapids onward towards Prague and majestically vanishing into the distance ending at the river Labe (the Elbe).

Arguably, Smetana's most famous tune ‘Vltava’ - an adaptation of the melody ‘La Mantovana’ - is attributed to the Italian tenor, Giuseppe Cenci. The tune also appears in an old Czech folk-song, ‘Kočka leze dírou’ (The Cat Crawls Through the Hole) and even tenor-sax jazz superstar, Stan Getz, got into the act by performing it as ‘Dear Old Stockholm’.

From the lesser gems of Ma vlast, the account of the ferocious Šárka, the mythical warrior-maiden of Bohemia (another Brünnhilde!) proved riveting listening while featuring a superbly seductive clarinet solo whilst in the last movement ‘Blaník’ - where the vanquished Czech heroes, led by St Wenceslas, lie asleep waiting their hour - an oboe jovially mimics a shepherd’s pipe.

All in all, the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra delivered a superb and rewarding account of Má vlast under Maestro Hrůša that epitomised the feelings and accord of the Czech people for their homeland in one of the greatest and most romantic works of the 19th century composed by Bedřich Smetana (highly regarded as the father of Czech music) who pioneered the development of a musical style that became so closely identified with his country’s aspirations to independence.
Reviewed by Tony Cooper
Jakub Hrůša, Bamberg Symphony Orchestra - BBC Proms (Photo Chris Christodoulou)
Jakub Hrůša, Bamberg Symphony Orchestra - BBC Proms (Photo Chris Christodoulou)
The concert is available on BBC iPlayer for 30 days.

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