MUSIC: A tonic for tired concert-goers

BBC SO / Belohlavek South Bank Centre
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The Independent Culture
Everybody talks about core repertoire these days, but not everyone seems sure about what it is. Dvorak would probably come high on most lists. And yet his large output is full of works that are known about but not known - and one or two fine pieces that even adventurous musicians have spectacularly ignored. Piano trios, for instance, go on automatically programming the Dumky, seemingly unaware of its magnificent predecessor in F minor - arguably on a par with the Seventh Symphony. Tuesday's concert in the BBC SO's Czech series contained a good example of unknown "core" Dvorak. The D minor Serenade for wind and string basses was one of Dvorak's first big international successes. When wind band entertainments went out of fashion, orchestral wind sections took it up; and, as far as I'm aware, it has never been out of the record catalogue. So when was the last time you heard it in concert?

Of course the forces required put it outside standard orchestral repertoire, but that's only a problem if you want it to be one. The point is that it's a work full of warmth, charm and humour, and like all such works, it only really flourishes in front of an audience. And judging from the warmth, charm and humour that came over in this performance, it did the members of the BBC SO good to play it. Just watching the expressions on the faces of the cellist (Paul Watkins) and first bassoonist (Rachel Gough) was a joy. If managements want to put the spirit back into London orchestral playing, they should give them - and us - more of this sort of thing.

It's a shame the strings (apart from the principal cello and bass) weren't given a similar tonic before tackling Mozart's A major Piano Concerto, K488. Violin phrasing in the opening ritornello was almost featureless. Strange that the conductor, Jiri Belohlavek, who had coaxed such fine shaping and shading in the Dvorak, achieved so little here. The soloist, Ivan Moravec, had his moments of penetration, but there were long bland stretches too - not at all what his recordings have led one to expect. Perhaps the strings should have played Suk's Serenade first. The Adagio was particularly lovely, especially the coda with its bird-like trills for solo violins.

The Saturday before, Belohlavek, the BBC SO and Chorus gave us a real rarity: Martinu's Epic of Gilgamesh. Martinu is a composer of highly individual strengths and infuriating weaknesses. It isn't simply that he wrote too much; he also recycled the same gestures - syncopated violin tunes, folksy plagal cadences. Gilgamesh contains its share of these, especially in the music of Enkidu's seduction. But the work becomes more personal - and, paradoxically, less self-repetitive - as it progresses. The final invocation of the dead Enkidu builds powerfully, and the ambiguous, unresolved ending - in which Gilgamesh's urgent questions about the afterlife get no answers - leaves an eerie aftertaste. A worthwhile revival - how gratifying that so many were there to witness it.

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