This outstanding concert, given to mark the emergence of the state of Czechoslovakia after World War One, was recorded: the number of microphones looked too great for a BBC delayed broadcast, so perhaps an LPO CD is in the offing. Certainly the performances merited being heard again and they would all fit on to one disc.
The evening started tamely, as LPO concerts do when Pieter Schoeman is leading, with him slinking on to the platform with the other players. I wish he would respect the British tradition of letting the audience applaud the leader – it is a way of showing regard for the orchestra as a whole. I have never forgotten my first sight of Hugh Bean bustling on to huge applause, immaculate in tails and white tie, to lead a Philharmonia concert in 1966. He looked so reassuringly professional that his mere presence immediately raised the temperature of the occasion.
As soon as Vladimir Jurowski entered, things started looking up. The first half of the concert was devoted to composers who were victims of the Holocaust. Readers may wonder why they have not heard of a Partita for strings by Gideon Klein (1919-45). The answer is that this work is an arrangement by the Czech-born French composer Vojtěch Saudek of the String Trio which Klein wrote in the Terezin concentration camp in 1944. A poignant detail not included in Anthony Burton’s excellent programme note is that Klein intended to compose a Quartet, but had to make it a Trio because one of the violinists in the camp had already been shipped off to his death. The three-movement Trio is a little masterpiece, with variations on a Moravian folksong as its centre. I cannot say that the inflation to a fullish string section – only six cellos and five basses – added any impact to the music for me, but if this version wins more friends for Klein it will have served its purpose. The performance was superb, crisp and confident where necessary, with an excellent dynamic range and great intensity in the slower passages. During the applause the conductor held up the score as a salute to the tragic Klein.
Erwín Schulhoff (1894-1942) was a brilliant pianist and a composer whose music chimed with several trends of the interwar years, including jazz and neo classicism, although he had an orthodox German training from Fritz Steinbach and Max Reger among others. His Concerto pits a string quartet against an ensemble of woodwinds including bass clarinet, two each of horns, trumpets and trombones, and tuba. It was first heard on 9 November 1932 from the Ondříček Quartet of Czech Radio and the Czech Philharmonic under Václav Talich. I know it only from recordings, where it is easy to balance. At the start, I wondered if even the magnificent Borodin Quartet – probably in the best formation right now – would be heard; and with Jurowski choosing to conduct from the right-hand side of the stage, I also wondered if cellist Vladimir Balshin would pick up his cues. But apart from a slight sense of struggle at the very beginning, all was well. The quartet members were kept busy by the motoric outer movements but had a major cadenza towards the end of the first movement; and in the Largo they were able to blossom a little. It would be hard to imagine a better performance, as the LPO players upheld the British tradition of wind- and brass-playing with great virtuosity and Jurowski held it all together masterfully.
The Borodins were back after the interval, but with a more extensive orchestra including strings, for Bohuslav Martinů’s Concerto. Written in Paris in June 1931 for the Quatuor Pro Arte, it was first played in Brussels that year and in Marseilles and London the following year. With their main ‘opposition’ consisting of strings, the soloists could let their tone flower a little more; and as Jurowski was conducting from the usual central podium there was no uneasiness about possible ensemble slips. Like the Schulhoff, the Martinů is archetypically neoclassical in its outer movements and has its main pool of profundity in the central Adagio, where the four soloists are able to spread themselves a little. It finds the composer well on the way to producing his best music and in this performance it made a considerable impact: the Finale has an enjoyably emphatic ending which, like all the rest, was nicely timed by Jurowski. He also clarified the textures and balanced the wind and brass carefully with the strings to make a satisfying and not too solid blend.
I came to this performance of Leoš Janáček’s Sinfonietta having only recently heard the new recording by the Czech Philharmonic under the late Jiří Bělohlávek. That was recorded at the Dvořák Hall of the Rudolfinum in Prague, a warmer acoustic than the Festival Hall. Jurowski had the extra brass spread out across the seats above and behind the rest of the LPO, which made sense, and the playing of the entire ensemble had tremendous impact. Yes, a less-dry acoustic would have helped, but beggars cannot be choosers. Chances to hear this classic of the twentieth-century Czech repertoire in the concert hall are few and far between, so it was all the more welcome and capped a terrific evening.
There have been several fine recordings of Klein’s Trio and the string orchestra version has been done by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Christoph Eschenbach. The Talich Quartet recorded the two works with string quartet with the Czech Philharmonic under Zdeněk Košler and you should still be able to find copies of the CD issues, on all-Schulhoff and all-Martinů Panton discs.