mon 26/02/2024

Prom 2, Bell, Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, Hrůša review – Bohemian rhapsody, and refinement | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 2, Bell, Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, Hrůša review – Bohemian rhapsody, and refinement

Prom 2, Bell, Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, Hrůša review – Bohemian rhapsody, and refinement

Sumptuously sophisticated playing from a Czech-German partnership

Clear as (Joshua) Bell with Jakub HrůšaAll images Chris Christodoulou/BBC

Eighty years ago this summer, Neville Chamberlain’s indifference to the peoples of Czechoslovakia – “a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing” – reaped its harvest of total war. These days, we have no excuses for not knowing a lot more. And the opening concerts of this year’s BBC Proms have shown why we should.

After the first-night offer of Dvořák and Janáček, yesterday saw an all-Bohemian rhapsody, with Dvořák’s Violin Concerto the elegant appetiser for a hearty, full-flavoured main course dished up in the form of Smetana’s complete Ma Vlást

Under its cooly commanding chief conductor Jakub Hrůša, the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra has its roots in wartime and post-war devastation. The ensemble was formed in the Bavarian city in 1946 by refugee musicians forced out of Czechoslovakia thanks to the ethnic cleansing of Czech Germans after the Nazi defeat. Honed by a youthful but tradition-conscious Czech maestro, their superbly mighty and mellow sound – an aural memory of not-quite-lost Mitteleuropa at its finest – makes the case for European solidarity in itself. 

At the same time, this Proms programme summoned the spirit of a gentler kind of nationalism than the sort Europeans suffer from today – in particular, the celebration of popular lore, legend and song that partnered the claims for self-rule that arose among the various communities of the Austro-Hungarian empire. That hinterland looms larger for Smetana than Dvořák, who often kept his wary distance from the traps of “ethnic” and folkloric style. Joshua Bell played the Violin Concerto with a poise and refinement that underlined its sophistication and delicacy rather than its nativist credentials, especially in the long, ravishing lines of the adagio that trickily follows without a break after the allegro.

In the allegro itself, I even wondered if the robust and dark-toned Bambergers – splendid strings above all – were starting to outshine the soloist. Bell accessed a chunkier, chewier sound in the first-movement cadenza, before the adagio opened a showcase for his silvery, rather introspective playing, debonair more than dashing, and largely free of lavish gestures or portamento flourishes. His violin dialogues with the muscular, but never brash, brass hinted at the Bambergers all-round accomplishment. Even the closing rondo, where the driving rhythms of the “furiant” do impart more of a Bohemian flavour, felt more polished and tasteful than earthily ecstatic. The taste, though, was excellent. And the encore – one of Dvořák’s Romantic Pieces, arranged for two violins and viola (pictured above) – left us with a bonbon to savour. 

After the break, we settled in for a luxury tour of Bohemia in the shape of Smetana’s Má Vlast in its entirety. These six linked symphonic poems from the 1870s too seldom find a concert platform together outside their native lands. Abroad, the anthemic swell and flow of “Vltava” – the second piece – tends to stand in for the whole. Yes, Smetana’s near-operatic evocations of the mythology, history and topography of Bohemia has its longueurs. The 80-odd minutes of the sequence did not pass without a few dull stretches of scenery. But Hrůša and the Bamberg band proved outstandingly well-informed and companionable guides, rising to terrific tutti heights of eloquence in “Vyšehrad”, and scaling similar peaks in the other movements. Smetana’s programmatic scheme gives a musical voice to medieval yarns, bloody battles and iconic landscapes in a rapturous, even mystical vein. Naturally, and in spite of its relative harmonic conservatism, it can put the listener in mind of Wagner’s near-contemporary Ring

From the eerie introduction on a pair of harps – on opposite sides of the stage – to the rippling flutes that summon the infant river Vltava and the wistful songs of the horns and oboes in the suite that celebrates “Bohemia’s woods and fields”, Smetana finds an array of richly-accented instrumental voices for his homeland. In the absence of a choral line, each part has to speak of these epics and legends with as much singing eloquence as it can muster – a huge amount, in the Bambergers’ case. The more explicitly folk-derived passages, with their furiants and polkas, galloped and whirled by in a torrent of energy. In “Tábor” and “Blanik”, with their Hollywood-style depictions of the wars of religion that wracked Bohemia, the sumptuous brass blasted their way through the heroic chronicles of strife with a majestic authority. These sections, though, can feel as relentless and overwhelming as a pike-and-musket battlefield. That made the final pastoral interlude, with rustic flute and horn hinting at the pleasures of peace, all the more welcome. If Smetana can seemingly nod to the mystic rivers and mountains of the Ring, then his scrambled soundscapes – the bands, the pipes, the dances, the marches, the woodland calls – perhaps look forward to the revolutionary ways that Mahler (another Bohemian by birth) would transform this musical heritage.

Even accompanied by an orchestra and conductor as perfectly in tune with the work as Hrůša (pictured above) and his outfit, I’m not sure I would choose to trek across the complete span of Smetana’s legendary Bohemia too regularly. This, though, was as zestful, impassioned and convincing a map of the whole landscape as any listener could desire. If we felt a little drained after the journey, then the merry encore – a dance from The Bartered Bride – supplied a parting pick-me-up. Let’s hope the fruity, meaty and wonderfully nourishing Bambergers return soon – unless our latter-day isolationist Chamberlains put up the cultural shutters again.

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