Monday 25 November 2019

Czech concerto rarities in recordings of engaging freshness and immediacy from Ivo Kahánek, Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, and Jakub Hrůša on Supraphon

Antonin Dvorak Piano Concerto, Bohuslav Martinu Piano Concerto No. 4 'Incantation'; Ivo Kahanek, Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, Jakub Hrůša; Supraphon
Antonin Dvorak Piano Concerto, Bohuslav Martinu Piano Concerto No. 4 'Incantation'; Ivo Kahánek, Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, Jakub Hrůša; Supraphon
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 25 November 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Two non-traditional Czech piano concertos in a fine new recording from a German orchestra with a strong Czech history

The Bamberg Symphony Orchestra has an interesting and honourable link to the Czech Republic as the orchestra was founded in 1946 by musicians who had been expelled from the Czech Republic and formerly been members of the German Philharmonic Orchestra of Prague, thus giving it Czech roots which stretch back to Mahler and even to Mozart.

On this new disc on the Supraphon label the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra is conducted by the Czech conductor Jakub (principal conductor since 2016) in a pair of lesser known Czech works, the piano concertos by Antonin Dvorak and Bohuslav Martinu, with pianist Ivo Kahánek. So we have Dvorak's early Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in G minor, Opus 33 from 1876 and Martinu's late Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 4 'Incantataion', H358 from 1956.

Dvorak's Piano Concerto is the first of his three concertos. Written in 1876, it would be followed in 1879 by the Violin Concerto and then in 1894-95 by the Cello Concerto. And they are very much thought of in that order, with the concerto for piano often coming a poor third. The concerto comes just after Dvorak's fifth symphony, and after he had won the Austrian State Prize for Composition in 1874 (he would win it again in 1876) which brought him both financial reward and recognition (Brahms was on the jury and took notice of the young Czech composer). The concerto was premiered in Prague in 1876.

It is not a bravura concerto in the manner of those of Brahms, and the effect is in fact rather symphonic. In a joint interview in the CD booklet with conductor Jakub Hrůša and pianist Ivo Kahánek, Kahánektalks about the piano writing being very similar to that in Dvorak's chamber music, it is effective but the piano is primus inter pares, rather than being protagonist or antagonist. A number of attempts have been made to make the piano writing more virtuosic, notably by pianist Vilém Kurz, but on this disc Kahánekreturns to Dvorak's original.

The result is more akin to a symphony with obbligato piano, and the recording greatly benefits from the fact that Hrůša and Kahánektreat it as such. If Dvorak's writing for piano is clumsy, as some pianists attest, then Kahánekdoes not let on and gives and idiomatic and tireless account of the piano part (it is a long piece, 40 minutes in duration). Dvorak's middle period symphonies and concertos (both violin and piano) can, in the wrong hands, simply sound like Bad Brahms, with the Czech influenced rhythms and melodies smoothed out. Here under a Czech-born conductor, the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra is fully alert to its Czech past and gives a finely idiomatic account of the work, and  Hrůša has a fine grasp of the large scale architecture of the work, whilst Kahánekbrings out the more intimate lyrical moments. The second movement is beautifully lyrically, this is Dvorak at his best and both soloist and orchestra relax into spinning a fine web of sound. Like the first movement, the last rather confounds expectations but of course that is to think in terms of the classic 19th century piano concerto, and perhaps we should take Kahánek's comments to heart and enjoy this movement as large-scale chamber music.

The companion piece is perhaps even less well known. Martinu wrote his fourth piano concerto whilst he was living in New York in the 1950s. It was premiered by pianist Rudolf Firkushny with Leopold Stokowski conducting, and whilst there have been some fine accounts on disc it is hardly common and this outing is to be welcomed indeed. This is one of the works were Martinu's style has opened out from the neo-classicism of the 1930s into something more rhapsodic. It is hardly a conventional concerto, with the two movements being more akin to a large-scale tone-poem or a rhapsodic fantasy. The orchestration is full of engaging colour and imagination, and the 19 minutes of the concerto manage to pack in a remarkable range of emotions. Hrůša, Kahánekand the orchestra give a terrific performance which is well worth the price of the disc alone, and makes you wonder why this work is not better known, and to wonder what Martinu's other music of the period is like.

Whilst the conversation between Hrůša and Kahánekin the CD booklet is fascinating, given the rareness of both works it is a shame that the opportunity was not taken to add some background to the pieces.

Both concertos were recorded in the Joseph-Keilberth-Saal (named for the orchestra's founder conductor, who conducted the Prague's German Philharmonic Orchestra in the 1940s) of the Konzerthalle, Bamberg. The Dvorak under studio conditions, the Martinu taken from live performances. The recordings capture the pieces well and the performers bring an engaging freshness to both works. Neither is a traditional piano concerto, and the disc has the great virtue in that the performers take each work on its own terms, bringing out the individuality of  the composers' vision. If you are looking for more out of the way Czech repertoire then have no hesitations.

Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) - Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in G minor, Op.33 (1876) [40:18]
Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959) - Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 4 'Incantattion' H358 (1956) [19:06]
Ivo Kahánek(piano)
Bamberg Symphony Orchestra
Jakub Hrůša (conductor)
Recorded in the Konzerthalle, Bamberg (Joseph-Keilberth-Saal), 4 & 5 October 2017 (Dvorka) and live 17-19 January 2019 (Martinu)
SUPRAPHON SU4236-2 1CD [59.34]
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