Jakub Hrůša / Bamberg Symphony
Smetana: Má Vlast

Tonhalle Maag, Zurich, 2019-05-19

5-star rating

2019-05-22 — Original posting


Jakub Hrůša (© Andreas Herzau)
Jakub Hrůša (© Andreas Herzau)

Introduction

In Zurich, the Hochuli Konzert AG, a small but distinguished concert agency in eastern Switzerland, operates on two legs. One of these is the string quartet series at St.Peter Church (see my review from the concert a week ago for the most recent one of these). On top of that, there is a parallel series of bigger events at the Tonhalle Maag—such as this one, featuring Jakub Hrůša conducting the Bamberg Symphony:

Bamberg Symphony

The Bamberg Symphony is unique among the orchestras in Germany. Due to WWII and its aftermath, the members of the former German Philharmonic Orchestra in Prague were forced to relocate. The Prague orchestra has a tradition which goes back to Mozart’s time. 1946, ex-members of that orchestra gathered in Bamberg. They formed the “Bamberger Tonkünstlerorchester” (Bamberg Musician’s Orchestra), soon renamed to Bamberger Symphoniker (Bamberg Symphony). On their Website, the orchestra states that since 1946, it has given over 7000 concerts in over 500 cities in 63 countries. It is one of the most-traveled orchestras in Germany.

I have witnessed that orchestra in an earlier concert in Zurich’s Tonhalle Maag, on 2017-12-18.

Bamberg Symphony @ Tonhalle Zurich, 2019-05-19 (© Rolf Kyburz)
Bamberg Symphony @ Tonhalle Zurich, 2019-05-19 (© Rolf Kyburz)

Jakub Hrůša

In 2016, the Czech Jakub Hrůša (*1981, see also Wikipedia) became chief conductor of the Bamberg Symphony. Also with that artist, this concert wasn’t my first encounter. I have attended a concert in Zurich, on 2017-06-21 where he was conducting the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich. I’m quoting from that earlier review:

Jakub Hrůša grew up in Brno. He originally studied piano and trombone, but soon got interested in conducting. At the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague, his teachers included Jiří Bělohlávek (1946 – 2017), Radomil Eliška (*1931) and Leoš Svárovský (*1961). Meanwhile, his international career is in full swing, and he has been performing with numerous prominent orchestras all over the world. 2017, one year after he became chief conductor of the Bamberg Symphony, the Philharmonia Orchestra named Jakub Hrůša its principal guest conductor.

In his Bamberg debut, 2014, Jakub Hrůša performed Bedřich Smetana‘s cycle of Symphonic Poems “Má Vlast”. Two years later, he recorded the cycle with that orchestra, and now, 2019, he is touring Europe (Prague, Baden Baden, Zurich, Innsbruck, Lugano, Hamburg, Wiesbaden, Amsterdam, and London) with the same program.

Setting, etc.

The concert sold very well. I estimate that the Tonhalle Maag with its 1224 seats was around 80 – 85% full. People seem to remember Jakub Hrůša’s last, successful appearance in Zurich, and the Bamberg Symphony is an orchestra with excellent reputation. My wife and I had seats 22 & 23 in row 14, in the right-hand side (front) block of the parquet.

Orchestra Setup

For Smetana’s rich instrumentation, the Bamberg Symphony was present in a fairly large formation, filling the stage on the Tonhalle Maag. The orchestra used an “antiphonal” arrangement, i.e. from left to right: violin 1 — viola — cello — violin 2, with the double basses behind the second violins at the far right. The two harps were separated, one on the left and one on the right, between strings and the wind instruments & percussion.

Jakub Hrůša conducted with baton, but without score, throughout the evening. Obviously, he knows this music inside out.


Jakub Hrůša, Bamberg Symphony @ Tonhalle Zurich, 2019-05-19 (© Andreas Herzau)
Jakub Hrůša, Bamberg Symphony @ Tonhalle Zurich, 2019-05-19 (© Andreas Herzau)

Bedřich Smetana (1824 – 1884): Má Vlast, JB 1:112

The orchestral cycle Má Vlast, JB 1:112 (“My Homeland”) was first performed (as complete cycle) in 1882. This is a collection of six symphonic poems that the composer created between 1874 and 1879. Each poem depicts some aspect of the countryside, history, or legends of Bohemia. The individual movements premiered between 1875 and 1880.

  1. Vyšehrad (The High Castle)
  2. Vltava (The river Moldau)
  3. Šárka
    (intermission)
  4. Z Českých luhů a hájů (From Bohemia’s fields and woods)
  5. Tábor
  6. Bláník

See one of my earlier posts for a brief review of a CD recording of Smetana’s Má Vlast. I have added short segments from the Wikipedia article on each of the six symphonic poems:

I. Vyšehrad

The first poem, Vyšehrad (The High Castle), composed between the end of September and 18 November 1874 and premiered on 14 March 1875, describes the Vyšehrad castle in Prague which was the seat of the earliest Czech kings.

During the summer of 1874, Smetana began to lose his hearing, and total deafness soon followed (…). In July 1874 he began hearing anomalous noise and then a permanent buzzing. Not long after the onset he was unable to distinguish individual sounds. At the beginning of October he lost all hearing in his right ear, and finally on 20 October in his left ear as well.

Acoustics

Momentarily, in the first bar with the extended, beautiful “signature” harp cadenza, the dry acoustics of the venue didn’t seem helpful. The lack of reverberation and acoustic resonance made the two harps sound rather isolated. Shouldn’t they feel “embedded” in the venue, resounding throughout the audience? However, luckily, that impression vanished with the entrance of the orchestra, when the attention instantly moved onto conductor and orchestra, and onto the performance.

The orchestra is said to be known for its characteristic, “dark” sound. That, however, wasn’t my primary impression (except for one highly impressive moment later in the concert). Rather, I instantly noted Jakub Hrůša’s “handwriting”, in the very clear articulation, observing every staccato dot in the score. And it was equally diligent and detailed in following the dynamic annotations. Was it truthful to the composer’s intent? Sure! Was it meticulous? Maybe. However, throughout the concert, I never, ever had the impression of an academic, “dry” interpretation. Through the conductor’s hands, his energetic, but always accurate and very clear gestures, Smetana’s music flourished, captured the audience with its warm expression, carried the listeners along through idyllic moments, soft segments full of tension, through dramatic scenes, as well as grandiose, intense climaxes.

The Performance

With the exception of the first moment (see above), the acoustics actually turned out supportive to the sound of the orchestra. It helped exposing the clear, characterful sound of the woodwinds and the excellent brass section, which appeared to dominate the orchestra initially. My impression: unlike other orchestras where excellent wind soloists are allowed to develop and show their individual personalities, here, the wind instruments are just as characterful, but they all join the character of the ensemble—more than elsewhere. Of course, Smetana’s orchestration is not so much meant to create color shadings by mixing orchestral sounds, as, e.g., in music by Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937). Rather, Smetana uses the sound of individual groups (e.g., trumpets, horns, etc.) to create a rich palette. And the acoustics even enhanced the transparency of the orchestra, kept the instruments spatially separated and identifiable.

And these brass instruments! Excellent throughout, clean and precise in articulation, pure, flawless in intonation, agile, bright, brilliant, “brassy”—throughout the evening: pure delight! I mention these first because in Smetana’s music they often play a dominant role. However, the quality of the woodwinds (flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons) was equally outstanding.

Conducting

Through his gestures, Jakub Hrůša kept a close connection with the orchestra, not only defining the pace, but depicting phrasing and articulation, shaping the dynamics in detail. Clearly, he kept the control at all times, didn’t just rely upon preparation and rehearsals. And his free conducting without score was instrumental in this. Of course, he also worked through the string players at the first desks, who did their work attentively and with precision, but inconspicuously. Together, orchestra and conductor used the entire acoustic span of the hall, from the finest ppp up to a splendid ff or fff. However, never overloading the acoustic capacity of the hall (which is definitely a danger in this venue).

II. Vltava

Vltava, also known by its English name The Moldau, and in German Die Moldau, was composed between 20 November and 8 December 1874 and was premiered on 4 April 1875.

The composition describes the course of the Vltava, starting from the two small springs, the Cold and Warm Vltava, to the unification of both streams into a single current, the course of the Vltava through woods and meadows, through landscapes where a farmer’s wedding is celebrated, the round dance of the mermaids in the night’s moonshine. On the nearby rocks loom proud castles, palaces and ruins aloft. The Vltava swirls into the St John’s Rapids; then it widens and flows toward Prague, past the Vyšehrad, and then majestically vanishes into the distance, ending at the Labe (or Elbe, in German).

The Performance

This now was the hour of the woodwinds! In Hrůša’s fluent pace, flutes and clarinets gave a vivid picture of the curly waves, the sun’s reflexes on the water of the River Moldau. Dynamics and agogics assisted in depicting the growing swaying of the waves on the river. Yet, the music never turned exuberant, but remained clear and always illustrative / pictorial. The articulation was emphatic, but always natural, never exaggerated, neither pompous, nor dry or scholastic. And, of course, Hrůša observed the repeat of the section with the main theme.

There was one little, singular incident in this piece (actually: the entire evening), which gave momentary insight into the orchestra’s internal “mechanics”. In the segment “Country Wedding” (Venkovská svatba, annotated L’istesso tempo, ma moderato), there is a country dance where the conductor did a short ritenuto. Here there was a short moment of rhythmic divergence between the two violin voices. The musicians corrected this instantly, it just lasted 1 – 2 seconds. Interestingly, both voices remained internally coherent, indicating the pivotal function of the first desks. In other words: in order to maintain coherence, the violinists rely upon their respective first desk, not on the conductor.

It wasn’t a major incident at all (most people sure didn’t even notice), but it is also indicative of an inherent weakness of the antiphonal setup. But no, by no means do I suggest that the modern setup would have been better: the advantages in spatial balance, etc. by far outweigh such dangers!

Atmosphere and Drama

Enchanting, this scene “Moonlight, Dance of the nymphs”, with its finest, silken ppp sound from the muted violins! And these changes of the light, as the river approaches the St.John’s Rapids (Svatojanské proudy), where the volume & drama filled the hall (without ever being oppressive). The rolling percussion marked the swirling, tumbling waters, and the high wind instruments illustrated the glittering from reflections of sunlight in the wild waters. Grandiose (not broad, initially) then “The broad flow of the Vltava” (Stroký tok Vltavy), gradually broadening, spreading towards the horizon.

I wondered how Hrůša would do the final two chords: traditionally, these sound like two very short ff explosions (almost). Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1929 – 2016) meticulously read the score and found that there are no staccato dots on these two chords. Consequently, he performed these with distinctively broad, mellow articulation. He hadn’t been Harnoncourt, if he didn’t over-emphasize this feature. Being Czech, Hrůša of course stuck with the Czech tradition of the short, marked accents. Inevitably, this provoked spontaneous applause!

III. Šárka

The third poem was finished on 20 February 1875 and is named for the female warrior Šárka, a central figure in the ancient Czech legend of The Maidens’ War. Šárka ties herself to a tree as bait and waits to be saved by the princely knight Ctirad, deceiving him into believing that she is an unwilling captive of the rebelling women. Once released by Ctirad, who has quickly fallen in love with her, Šárka serves him and his comrades with drugged mead and once they have fallen asleep she sounds a hunting horn: an agreed signal to the other women. The poem ends with the warrior maidens falling upon and murdering the sleeping men.

The Performance

From the first notes, Šárka throws the listener into the dramatic action in this poem. The orchestra maintained clear articulation, agile in dynamics, as well as in agogics / rubato / phrasing: the start feels almost like a virtuosic orchestral showpiece. But it was not show. I noted the clarity and precision in the Più moderato assai. At the same time, the dynamics and the sound balance remained diligently controlled. For example, almost throughout the evening, the triangle remained a discreet coloring tool, never showed up prominently.

The beginning of the short clarinet solo in the middle (prior to the Moderato ma con calore) was bright, almost brassy—just to switch to an infinitely fine and delicate p / pp. The same amount of care was applied to dynamics and articulation in the response from the cellos. The following general rest instantly created tension, as did the subsequent, gradual build-up: tension in emotions, love, not drama (just yet!), as it soon turned out.

Very pictorial later the gradual tiring of the warriors, the contrabassoon indicating deceptively peaceful snoring, the fatal horn call, the recitative-like, “speaking” clarinet, and the subsequent, very dramatic, horrible carnage: beautiful, fascinating music, still, of course—both dramatic and highly virtuosic!

Direction

Jakub Hrůša’s conducting appeared like a mix of tight grip and free rhythmic swaying. Clearly, this wasn’t just the routine of executing music that has been rehearsed ad infinitum: sure, he was relying on the orchestra’s inherent, top-ranking qualities. At the same time, there was also the component of “reinventing the music”, of realizing his intention in the moment of execution.

Jakub Hrůša @ Tonhalle Zurich, 2019-05-19 (© Andreas Herzau)
Jakub Hrůša @ Tonhalle Zurich, 2019-05-19 (© Andreas Herzau)

IV. Z Českých luhů a hájů

Smetana finished composing this piece, the title of which means “From Bohemia’s woods and fields”, on 18 October 1875 and received its first public performance nearly eight weeks later, on 10 December. A depiction of the beauty of the Czech countryside and its people, the tone poem tells no real story.

The Performance

A little side-note at first: I was pleased to note the disciplined, well-organized way in which the orchestra entered the stage. And not just at the beginning of the concert, but also after the intermission.

Here, the excellent quality and sound culture of the orchestra, the strings and later the woodwinds in particular came to full bearing: beautiful nature scenery, packed into the demanding musical form of a fugato. Clarity, no excess indulging in beautiful harmonies. The second fugato seemed to indicate a slight downturn in the atmosphere, gradual clouding. However, what follows is not a thunderstorm, but a grandiose climax.

Hrůša kept the tension through the subsequent, strongly contrasting sections, the changes in atmosphere and mood. Further highlights: the outstanding clarity in the string triplets in the segment that follows the first fff climax: nobody in the orchestra was leaning back in their chair, everybody seemed to perform “on the chair’s edge”! Even more astounding: the second fff climax leads into a segment where (just) all string instruments repeat the same 2-bar tremolo motif on the lowest strings, all fff, and this continues after the wind instruments join in, almost up to the end: that fff string tremolo was not only impressive in its coherence and volume, but primarily in its (now truly) dark color. This is where I understood why people attribute a “dark color” to this orchestra!

V. Tábor

This piece was finished on 13 December 1878 and premiered on 4 January 1880. It has its name from the city of Tábor in the south of Bohemia founded by the Hussites and serving as their center during the Hussite Wars. The theme for the piece is quoted from the first two lines of the Hussite hymn, “Ktož jsú boží bojovníci” (“Ye Who Are Warriors of God”).

The Performance

From my notes: calm, mystery, tension, expectation. And clarity , such as in these repeated p, poco marcato ma sempre p horn calls. These turn out to be allusions to the Hussite war hymn of which the first motif breaks out as bright brass-dominated call, once the crescendo reaches ff: an archaic theme, indeed! Ultimately, it’s the clarinets and bassoons that present the full theme, a solemn hymn. And they did that with absolutely pure intonation.

The subsequent, martial bars that build up to a truly Grandioso climax: emphatic, very clear (but not feeling “intellectual”). Interestingly, that hymn repeatedly leads into a fermata with an ancient closing formula similar to (as “closest example”) what Bach also uses in his Toccata con Fuga in D minor, BWV 565. Tábor subsequently goes through a kaleidoscope of mood / atmosphere swings. There are scenes full of turmoil, then again relentless and determined, with sharp, erratic sfz beats from the entire orchestra. These are violent and precise at the same time. This movement / poem was one of several examples where the antiphonal setting greatly enhanced the passing of motifs between the two violin voices.

VI. Bláník

Bláník was finished on 9 March 1879 and premiered on 4 January 1880. It is named for the mountain Bláník inside which a legend says that a huge army of knights led by St.Wenceslas sleep. The knights will awake and help the country in its gravest hour (sometimes described as four hostile armies attacking from all cardinal directions).

The Performance

Jakub Hrůša just waited for a slightly extended fermata at the end of Tábor, then immediately appended Bláník, quasi attacca. That makes perfect sense: the same chord, the same motif. More than Tábor, this poem seems to follow a clear narrative. Indeed, one can almost see a mighty army of knights disappear into Mount Bláník, accompanied by motifs from the Hussite hymn. They leave behind a nature idyl with woodwinds imitating bird calls, peaceful horn melodies above a deep, humming drone from the strings.

Drama suddenly breaks out, the tension rapidly builds up. The music may sound playful and virtuosic, but it is full of inner tension, intense, dramatic, emote, tense. Here now, the phalanx of the string showed its full, very impressive strength, building up to a glorious Grandioso climax. This felt like a hymn of victory. Temporarily, the music calms down, appears to build up to a joyful closure. At the Largamente maestoso, the archaic Hussite hymn returns with full force, building up, ending in a glorious, triumphant Hussite apotheosis.

The applause was frenetic—and well-deserved! The orchestra performance was flawless, absolutely coherent and compelling, and the intonation perfect from beginning to end. And Jakub Hrůša’s direction left nothing to wish for: he not only knows this music inside out, but he can present it so convincingly: every single transition / tempo change was so natural, if not inconspicuous: this music is in his blood!


Jakub Hrůša, Bamberg Symphony @ Tonhalle Zurich, 2019-05-19 (© Andreas Herzau)
Jakub Hrůša, Bamberg Symphony @ Tonhalle Zurich, 2019-05-19 (© Andreas Herzau)

Encores — Smetana: Dances from the Opera “The Bartered Bride” (Prodaná nevěsta), JB 1:100

Such a compelling performance could not end without encores! And for a Czech conductor leading an orchestra with Czech roots, a Czech encore is almost a given. On top of that, for a pure Smetana program such as this one, the encore(s) had to be by the same composer. And indeed: Jakub Hrůša chose two orchestral pieces from the Opera “The Bartered Bride” (Prodaná nevěsta), JB 1:100. That’s not only Smetana’s most popular opera, but also his most popular composition altogether, along with Má Vlast. The overture would be the obvious choice (a popular, virtuosic orchestral showpiece), but it would have been a bit too long. Rather, Hrůša chose two dances from Acts I and II:

  • Act I, 7: Polka, Moderato assai (orchestral part of the closing scene)
  • Act II, 2: Furiant, Allegro energico (3/2=72)

I don’t need to add a description of the performance of the heavy Polka or the enthralling Furiant. But a better ending for this concert—a true highlight of the season—was hardly imaginable.



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