Jiří Bělohlávek, who was indisposed for his first scheduled Proms performance this year (in his final season as Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra), was back on the podium to conduct a Slavic-themed programme on Wednesday night. There were many elements of the concert which I enjoyed, especially the grandiose and colourful arrangement of Smetana’s String Quartet no. 1 by George Szell and also the virtuosic playing by violinist Vadim Gluzman in Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto no. 1, but overall I felt a lack of dramatic tension, notably in Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony.
A rarely heard orchestral arrangement of Smetana’s string quartet “From My Life” by the conductor George Szell was a quirky choice to open this concert. Smetana composed this work in his later years, reminiscing about his life, and it is essentially a personal work with a melancholic touch. But Szell’s colourful orchestration makes extensive use of wind and brass instruments (especially horns) rather in the style of Dvořák’s symphonies or Slavic dances, and its symphonic gradeur was a good match for the spacious Royal Albert Hall. The ensemble took a while to settle down, but the second movement, a light-hearted polka, was delightfully performed with Slavic sentiment. There were also some intimate moments in the last movement where the music was reduced to four solo strings (rather like in the second movement of Dvorak’s “New World” symphony), played poignantly by the principals of the orchestra.
The soloist in Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto no. 1 was the Israeli violinist Vadim Gluzman making his Proms debut. He gave a well-articulated and polished performance, at times gutsy but never compromising his sweet and silky tone which floated effortlessly above the orchestra. The problem was that Bělohlávek was too laid back in comparison and lacked the incisiveness necessary for Prokofiev’s music, especially in the Vivacissimo second movement. Too often, the violinist’s forward momentum was pulled back by the conductor, and on a couple of occasions the solo and orchestra were out of sync. It was a pity because Gluzman brought both technical finesse and expressive colour to this piece, and with more receptive orchestral playing, it could have been a great performance. Still, the audience appreciated his virtuosity and as an encore, he treated us with a breezy account of the first movement of Ysaÿe’s second solo sonata.
As a conductor, Bělohlávek is definitely not a man of extremes – no extreme tempos or quirky articulations – and his reading of Dvořák’s Symphony no. 7 was all very moderate too, which itself is no bad thing. However, the performance could have done with a little more dramatic intensity. As a Czech, Bělohlávek is on home territory here but it felt all too comfortable and he didn’t really explore the darker sides of the work fully. The first movement unfolded in a moderate and lyrical manner with warm-sounding strings and beautiful woodwind playing, especially from principal flautist Michael Cox, although the ensemble could have been tighter at times. It was more of the same in the second movement and the music only really took flight in the Scherzo, where Bélohlávek and the orchestra found excitement and urgency in the characteristic Czech dance rhythms of the furiant. The momentum was carried over into the final movement which was expansive and rich in sonority, especially in the brass section, and built up into a rousing climax.
Má vlast comes
autobiographical E minor
quartet, in George
another first for the
Proms. Its finale is
suddenly interrupted by a graphic illustration of
the onset of deafness, a sustained high E, here on
piccolo as well as violin, imitating the tinnitus that
afflicted the composer. By contrast Prokofiev’s
concerto is one of his magical fairy-tale pieces,
championed tonight by Proms debut artist, Vadim
Gluzman. Dvorák’s dark, passionate Seventh
Symphony was commissioned by the Philharmonic
Society of London, the composer himself
crossing the Channel to direct the premiere.
Royal Albert HallKensington Gore
London Greater London United Kingdom SW7 2AP
Jiří Bělohlávek conducting the BBC SO in Prom 8 of 2011 © BBC / Chris Christodoulou