Long, long ago, in 1952 when the Royal Festival Hall had just been opened, Toscanini came to London to give with the Philharmonia what turned out to be his last concerts in England. Predictably this was a such a welcome event in post war austerity Britain that the queue for tickets stretched right round the hall. Now, my father, unlike my mother, was not very musical and, nonplussed by finding he had a son who, as well as being a promising cricketer, was becoming dangerously enthusiastic about classical music , not unkindly suggested that it was nonsense to think that one person standing in front of an orchestra could make much difference to an orchestra who could play the notes. Well, of course his superior adolescent son thought that this was just the sort of thing fathers would say and, in an age that worshipped musical dictators, laughed at such heresy.
In our age in some ways I now have sympathy with my Dad’s view. I have come to detest the cult of the maestro which still persists in some parts of the globe on some occasions and thankfully most conductors now approach their job in a more collegiate fashion. This is a welcome change, though of course it is not entirely new. The great Sir Thomas Beecham, who actually thought himself as very much a leader, I remember saying on television that young conductors should remember that ‘the gentlemen(sic) of the orchestra know far more about music than they do’ and his credo was to get the best musicians together and, as he put it with tongue in cheek, to let them play. Indeed, you only have to listen to his discs to hear the unique music making that resulted.
These thoughts came about as a result of the Philharmonia’s opening concert of the 2017/ 2018 season at DMH. In it the famous American violinist Hilary Hahn made her debut in the city and the Czech conductor Jacob Hrusa made a very welcome return, but this time in his new role as one of the two Principal Guest Conductors of the orchestra. The concert of Czech music exuded the joy the soloist ,the conductor and the 80 or so musicians of the orchestra were experiencing at making music together.The conductor had said in the pre-concert talk that he in no way saw himself as someone who dictates. Whatever, the overall result in the first item in the programme ,the Dvorak Violin Concerto, was unalloyed pleasure. The work may not quite see the best of the composer , the first movement never seems to know quite where it is going, but once one reached the enchantment of the bridge into the second movement Dvorak’s melodic genius took over. Here Hahn spun a delectable web of sound. Following that, she and the conductor made sure that the final movement danced its way to an irresistible conclusion. The violinist’s unerring sense of phrasing and line, together with the gorgeous sound she produced, amply justified her reputation as one at the very finest violinists of the present time and as an artist determined to expand the repertoire of concertos beyond endless repetition of a few war-horses. (See next month’s concerto choice!)
However , for all that, particularly in a programme which featured the very rare opportunity to hear all six tone poems which go to make up Smetana’s Ma Vlast , one was also reminded , whatever the methods employed, of the very significant difference the conductor can make to the way one hears a piece of music, especially when it requires special advocacy. It is then that most obviously a great conductor is revealed. Two years ago, having heard Jacob Hrusa in Leicester in a truly memorable performance of Mahler’s Third Symphony and later in the same year his unforgettable conducting of the Glyndebourne production of Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream ,I thought him just that. This interpretation of the Smetana from the first note was not ever likely to bring a change to that view.
In fact, it seemed hardly an interpretation. It was as if one had been waiting all one’s life to hear Smetana’s music as it should be done. Years ago at DMH there was a performance by the Philharmonia with an American Conductor of at least four of the tone poems and I, together with a number of friends, thought that indeed Vltava was on that evidence the only one really to justify a place in the general repertoire. Yet here from the very beginning in Vysehhrad (The High Castle) the marvellously rich brass sounds brought the world of chivalry vibrantly to life with a splendour that was at times overwhelming. One mentions the brass but in truth the orchestra as a whole was on the kind of form not to be surpassed I suspect by any orchestra on the planet.
In Vltava the scene painting at times was astonishing. I had noted in that Mahler performance this conductor’s capacity to get a string tone that was infinitely various. So, in this well known piece one heard the famous tune delivered with a bright joyousness and lift, quite different to it being laid on thickly by a trowel. Then in the passage depicting the water nymphs the sound changed to a thin thread of sparkling silver so that the scene was enchanting beyond words. If one was looking for heft, then one got it in the depiction of the Rapids which was a veritable tsunami of sound.
In Sarka, a tale worthy of the Bacchae in its depiction of a male bloodbath , the way the drama was ratcheted up to the dreadful conclusion was a textbook example of how to keep your powder dry until the moment arrives. Then in From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields the return to Czech folk scenery and dance reminded one of how in this music so many conductors use over- emphatic rubato. Here often the minutest expressiveness of phrasing was enough to make the music sail and sound utterly natural and utterly Czech.
And one could go on and on voicing admiration for such music making. However, perhaps in the end a slight reality check is in order, and this has nothing to do with the performance. When it came to the last two tone poems, written some time after the first four, was it weariness in this listener after well over an hour’s music or did one suspect that Smetana’s inspiration was here of a lower order? However hard one tried to keep oneself attentive, the constant re-iteration in Tabor of the Hussite hymn became at each re-appearance ever less compelling, so much so that I have to admit that I missed the moment it finished and the last tone poem Blanik began!
So, in the end, despite the inspiring conducting and the inspired playing, I remain unconvinced that Ma Vlast as a whole is quite the masterpiece I thought I was indeed discovering during the first four tone poems. However, those on their own were quite enough to rate this concert as a revelatory experience which will stick in the mind for a long time.
Philharmonia DMH November 1st 7.30.
The return of the German conductor Karl Heinz Steffens, who gave a fine performance of Brahms’ 3rd Symphony last year. This time he conducts No4. Also Esther Yoo plays the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto.
Lunchtime Series Museum November 2nd 1.00
Amy Harman Bassoon and Tom Poster Piano in what looks to be a fascinating hour’s music.