MUSIC / A flexing of intellectual sinew: Anthony Payne on Pesek and the RPO in an all-Czech programme at the Festival Hall

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IN spite of Smetana's spine-chilling dramatisation of his deafness in the autobiographical First String Quartet, he has somehow failed to be canonised as the afflicted artist hero in quite the same measure as Beethoven. Yet his achievement is no less stirring. His diaries and letters give us poignant insight into the initial distortions of hearing and the profound deafness that followed within three months. Yet it was at this time that he composed Vysehrad and Vltava, the opening works in the radiant Ma Vlast, a testament to his indomitable spirit.

This sequence of six tone poems is no longer than some of the grander symphonic masterpieces that are regularly heard in our concert halls, yet only Vltava and Bohemia's Woods and Fields have entered the repertory, and one is hard put to find a reason for the complete cycle's comparative lack of success. Perhaps people miss the luxuriance of expression with nostalgic overtones that have contributed to Dvorak's popularity, but it is Smetana's great glory to have expressed passionate and tender emotions without sentimentality or self-pity, and to have encompassed the feelings of a nation and a period with intellectual sinew.

Certainly these thoughts welled up irresistibly when Libor Pesek directed the RPO in a selection of four of the pieces during an enterprising Czech programme at the Festival Hall on Monday. The orchestra was not always at its best, and for all Pesek's care and attention the composer's special textural characteristics were not always ideally served. The sonorous blend of horns and bassoons, then upper winds in Vysehrad's opening largo, lacked warmth and evenness, while Smetana's majestic tuttis, both here and later, did not reveal the corporate inner ear of an orchestra in form. Nevertheless, Sarka was delivered with urgency and drama, Vltava's renowned moonlight scene was ravishingly characterised, and Blanik proceeded to a concluding triumph.

More clearly projected was the orchestral contribution to Janacek's Glagolitic Mass which formed the second half of the programme. The high and low textures that seem to place the Agnus Dei's supplication between earth and sky were beautifully shaded, while the composer's jubilant brass writing drew an enthusiastic response.

At the same time the Brighton Festival chorus delivered Janacek's mysterious ruminations and ecstatic declarations with splendour. The train of images that brings the Sanctus to a white-hot intensity, passing from soloists to chorus over a treading bass line, was splendidly projected. The Credo, too, was searchingly characterised and the colouring of the textural variations with which Janacek changes the psychological emphases of 'I believe' penetrated right to the heart of the composer's vision.

The soloists face a difficult task in this work, and the tenor John Horton Murray and baritone Roger Roloff were not always capable of riding the rich surrounding textures, despite an ardent attack. Helen Field's soprano gave the music a passionate edge, however, and Ameral Gunson dealt ably with the small mezzo part. Finally, John Scott gave the wild organ interjections a most dramatic presence and Pesek's control of Janacek's wilful inspiration sustained a pantheistic fervour.

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