Principal guest conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra, Jakub Hrůša continued his productive association with it - opening with a major piece by arguably the leading post-war Czech composer who nonetheless remains virtually unknown outside of his native country.
The career of Miloslav Kabeláč (1908-79) was one of constant antagonism with the Czech state, whether during Nazi domination or the subsequent era of communist hegemony. His posthumous reputation has increased slowly, but a recent set of his eight Symphonies amply confirms an individual mindset which never tackled this genre the same way twice. Hardly less symphonic in its intent, The Mystery of Time (1957) has long been circulated through a typically authoritative recording from Karel Ančerl and today remains his best-known work.
Cast as a passacaglia lasting some twenty minutes, the piece unfolds with unswerving conviction from speculative beginnings, through passages (or rather variations) of increasing activity and impulsiveness, to a powerful climax galvanised by the rhythmic undertow of bass drum and un-snared side drums – at the apex of which the music subsides inevitably back towards the sombre rumination from which it emerged. Inevitability was certainly the watchword for this performance, Hrůša securing a committed response. The audience responded enthusiastically, doubtless surprised so unfamiliar a work should have proved so gripping on first acquaintance.
If the remainder of this concert consisted of lighter fare, it in no way reflected on the quality – or lack thereof – of the music in question. It is a measure of Shostakovich’s stature that so accessible a piece as his Second Piano Concerto (also 1957) should be so wholly characteristic. In the hands of Simon Trpčeski , the initial Allegro proved weightier and more ambivalent than is often the case, though there was no lack of deftness here or in the effervescent Finale – with the central Andante yielding a poise and limpidity which was never less than affecting. Trpčeski and Hrůša dovetailed responses with relish – the former continuing the collaborative mood alongside leader Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay and cellist Timothy Walden in the Scherzo from Shostakovich’s Second Piano Trio which served as an unexpected but engaging encore.
Encore status is usually meted out to Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances when heard in concert, but Hrůša has decided differently this season and here devoted the second half to the First Set (1878). Whether or not these amount to an integrated or cohesive sequence, their melodic appeal or expressive contrasts are never in doubt and Hrůša drew playing of suavity and finesse, not to mention effervescence, from these musicians. A highlight was the Sixth Dance with its burnished Mahlerian tone-colours. Hrůša is to return with the Second (and more innovative) Set on February 17, with comparable pleasures all but guaranteed.