Proms: And Death becomes him...

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The Independent Culture
IT IS, I suppose, a tragic fact of history that ethnic cleansing and political murder are as real for listeners today as they were for those of 50 years ago, and that the musical commemorations of Nazi reprisal killings and the murder of a Czech student still seem frighteningly contemporaneous.

Indeed, last Thursday's Prom recalled an alarming evening back in October 1905 when a young Czech student was stabbed to death for "demonstrating his enthusiasm for higher education". The words are those of Leos Janacek, who composed an intense Piano Sonata in the student's memory. Andras Schiff's performance drew maximum expressive capital from the eerily repetitive slow movement, Death, holding fast to an extremely broad tempo and investing each episode with a wealth of subtle shading. The first movement is marked Presentiment: con moto and, again, Schiff's fundamentally tender interpretation worked well. However, Schiff was less convincing in Dvorak's Piano Concerto, a lengthy piece that was for many years served up in a "pianistic" rewrite by the Prague music professor, Vilem Kurz. Schiff played the concerto in its original version, and I now understand why critics brand it unpianistic.

This being Dvorak, there are lovely ideas, not least the first movement's winding first theme, its polka-like second subject, and virtually all of the second movement. But the instrument that seems surplus to requirements is, oddly, the piano. Virtually everything of interest resides in the breezy orchestral score, whereas the poor soloist is saddled with endless sequences and vapid passage work.

As to Thursday's performance, the conductor Jiri Belohlavek drew some nicely arched phrasing from the BBC Symphony strings, but Schiff - who played from memory - pulled too many punches, preferring filigree finger- work and elastic rubato to a more obvious show of grandeur.

The concert opened with Bohuslav Martinu's gut-wrenching memorial to a Czech village which the Nazis annihilated as a reprisal for the assassination of the "overlord of the Protectorate of Moravia and Bohemia", Reinhard Heydrich.

Memorial to Lidice is sullen and solemn, as economical and centred as Janacek's Sonata is free-wheeling and fiercely neurotic. Belohlavek's performance had all the right ingredients, but the BBC Symphony's ensemble left a good deal to be desired, especially among the woodwinds.

Paradoxically, it was the wind section that fared best in the closing account of Brahm's Second Symphony, most notably the horn section and Lorna McGhee's expressive flute embellishments of the first movement's lyrical second theme. In other respects, the performance was distinguished more by the clarity and sensitivity of Belohlavek's conducting than by instrumental finesse. It was a well-structured reading that lacked both serious flaws and notable virtue.