Hrůša reintroduces Czech symphony to Cleveland

Cleveland Orchestra
Jakub Hrůša, conductor
Sergey Khachatryan, violin
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
April 5, 2018

Brahms: Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77
 Encore:
 Komitas: Apricot Tree
Suk: Symphony No. 2 in C minor, Op. 27, Asrael

While the remainder of The Cleveland Orchestra’s centennial season is being devoted to the Tristan Festival and Prometheus Project, Thursday night saw one final standalone program, juxtaposing a familiar concerto with a forgotten symphony. The weekend’s performances also served as a return of the remarkable young conductor Jakub Hrůša, a podium presence I’ve been keen to see again since attending his Chicago Symphony debut not a year ago.

Brahms’ genial Violin Concerto began the evening, with soloist Sergey Khachatryan. Its gentle, triadic opening recalled Beethoven’s sole work in the medium as well as Brahms’ own Second Symphony, written nearly concurrently – and all three works in question share the sunny key of D major, doubtlessly more than mere coincidence. Despite the initial calm, Khachatryan’s entrance was fiery and passionate, but in due course melted into lyricism. Khachatryan displayed astonishing command of his instrument, from the stratospherically high to the guttural low. The virtuosity of the cadenza was pyrotechnics of substance, never just for show. An uncoordinated orchestral reentry fortunately did little to detract from the serenity of the moments that followed, and expansive movement drew to a close, majestic in its capaciousness.

An oboe melody of simply grandeur highlighted the Adagio, very finely played by assistant principal Jeffrey Rathbun, and later echoed by Khachatryan. A handful of brass flubs were regrettable distractions from this otherwise great statement of repose, as was an audience coughing with a particular zealousness. The finale burst with a Hungarian flare, a nod to the nationality of the concerto’s dedicatee and first performer, Joseph Joachim. Here at last such a stately work became increasingly unbuttoned, and a striking meter change allowed matters to turn even folksier.

Khachatryan returned to the stage with an arresting encore that continued the folk music theme, this time from his homeland of Armenia: “Apricot Tree” by the Armenian priest, composer, and ethnomusicologist Komitas (and also namesake of the conservatory in Yerevan). A dignified theme of modal harmony was countered by writing in the highest registers of the instrument, otherworldly and hardly sounding like a violin, and the work faded away via a sequence of rapid tremolos.

The real discovery came in the second half, devoted to Josef Suk’s hour-long Asrael Symphony. It’s a work which Hrůša knows intimately, having recorded it with the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra and conducting without score, yet TCO has performed it only twice before, the most recent appearance almost three decades ago. Asrael is the Angel of Death in the Old Testament, and accordingly, it’s a dark and somber work, intended by Suk as an elegy for his teacher (and father-in-law) Dvořák, and later also memorializing his wife (i.e. Dvořák’s daughter), Otilie, who died during the work’s gestation.

The symphony is a five-movement affair, symmetrical in conception, with a central scherzo encapsulated by two funereal slow movements, and bookended on each end with an extensive movement of weight and gravitas – thoughtfully constructed, though at times a bit unwieldy. Stylistically, it’s of a post-Wagnerian sumptuousness and chromaticism – in that regard, a fine prelude to the Tristan Festival. And parenthetically, Suk’s grandson of the same name was a noted violinist who made his American debut here in Cleveland at the behest of George Szell.

The symphony opened in desolation, with a statement of the imposing and recurring Asrael theme presented shortly thereafter. Hrůša skillfully articulated the movement’s vast sonata form, clarifying the dense textures – from the powerful, unforgiving brass climaxes, to the pounding of the bass drum, all of which died away into the nebulous whispers that opened. The following Andante was the work’s tribute to Dvořák, with an incessant stepwise gesture that suggested the elder composer’s Requiem. Long-held notes in the principal winds gave an especially powerful effect, as if suspended in time. A stark contrast was had in the scherzo, nearly in jest, and most memorable was the lovely central section, boasting very fine playing from the harp as well as concertmaster William Preucil, and it built to a statement of great sweep and power. The scherzo material resurfaced and led to a dramatic statement of the Asrael theme.

The Adagio, written for Otilie, was perhaps the heart of the symphony, heartfelt and deeply tragic, highlighted by Preucil’s solos that reached heavenward. Rambunctious timpani marked the energetic finale, with the shrillness of the E flat clarinet among the many colors of its kaleidoscopic tapestry. The movement’s extended coda was Suk at his most original, with its stirring brass chorales and hypnotic trills, and the final moments oscillated between the serenity of the upper registers and the unsettling of the low, with the former getting the final word. Thanks are due to Hrůša for his passionate advocacy of a remarkable work that deserves to be heard.

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Hrůša gives an impressive CSO debut with a glorious Má vlast

Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Jakub Hrůša, conductor
Symphony Center
Chicago, IL
May 18, 2017

Smetana: Má vlast

While Smetana’s Vltava (more commonly branded in its German rendering of The Moldau) is a well-known quantity, the cycle of six tone poems from where it comes, collectively titled Má vlast, has become something of a rarity outside the composer’s Czech homeland.  So much so that Thursday night’s performance was the CSO’s first traversal of the complete work in over three decades – the score was last visited by the Czech former music director Rafael Kubelík in 1983, and later by James Levine on a 1987 Ravinia program.

Smetana’s magnum opus served as a fine platform for the talented young conductor Jakub Hrůša – recently named principal guest conductor of London’s Philharmonia Orchestra – to make his CSO debut, and by all accounts, it was a success.  The last time I caught a performance of the complete Má vlast was at the Pittsburgh Symphony under Jiří Bělohlávek, with whom Hrůša studied – in each case, I was struck how both conductors managed to commit the expansive score to memory, a testament to the importance of this work to Czech musicians.

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Jakub Hrůša and the CSO, photo credit Brittany Sowacke

Vyšehrad, the spacious opening selection, invoked the titular ancient fortress in Prague with a stentorian theme in the brass that recurred throughout the cycle.  It began with the two harps in a rhapsodic passage, given freely without Hrůša’s conducting, as if a minstrel telling a tale.  The piece built to powerful brassy climaxes, but the terraced dynamics were controlled in such a way that matters never fell into empty bombast, and a quiet, contemplative statement of the Vyšehrad theme closed this first tone poem.

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Vyšehrad, on the banks of the Vltava. Smetana is buried at the cemetery at Vyšehrad (as is Dvořák).

Vltava had particular poignancy in assuming its rightful place in the context of the cycle.  A pair of liquescent flutes depicted the two streams that converge to form the mighty river, and the river’s journey was traced in vivid detail.  The famous primary theme was given with a sweeping passion, while in due course there was portrayal of the bubbling St. John’s Rapids, a spirited peasant wedding, and most memorably, the mystical atmosphere of the water nymphs.  Signaling the river’s arrival in Prague was fittingly a further invocation of the Vyšehrad motif.

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Vltava River in Prague, photo credit Ocean/Corbis

A violent intensity characterized Šárka in its garish detailing of a most gruesome tale: a battle of the sexes, wherein the titular figured commanded a battalion of warrior maidens to drug and eventually murder a group of unsuspecting men.  Šárka herself was represented via a sinuous clarinet line, very finely played by Steven Williamson, and the work grew to wild, unrelenting heights, with the trombones adding a shattering heft to the coda.

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Josef Václav Myslbek’s sculpture of Šárka at Vyšehrad, photo credit Wikipedia

Z českých luhů a hájů (translated in the program books as From Bohemia’s Field and Groves) is certainly a highpoint of the set.  Despite its innocuous title, it began with a turbulent pathos, giving way to a sophisticated and expertly articulated fugato, perhaps suggesting the complexity of the Czech people who embody more than mere rustic simplicity.  Still, the tone poem positively exuded a joie de vivre in a theme initiated by the mellifluous horns.

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The Czech countryside, photo credit Keren Su/Corbis

The final two works were written as an afterthought to the preceding, yet they are inextricably linked both to each other and to the cycle as a whole.  Tábor opened with a defiant statement of a Hussite chorale, perhaps mirroring the defiance with which Smetana feverishly composed music in the face of deafness.  A sweet choir of winds added some contrast, while the propulsive intensity of the main theme was grinded out by the low strings.

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Tábor, Czech Republic, photo credit Wikipedia

The concluding Blaník, named for a mountain where according to legend, St. Wenceslas’ army lay dormant but prepared to rally in a time of great need, picked up right where Tábor left off.  This time, however, the chorale was noticeably brighter, a hint to the glorious direction the music was headed.  Appropriately, it concluded with a final pronouncement of the venerable Vyšehrad theme, now triumphant and victorious in the shining CSO brass.

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Blaník viewed from the southwest, photo credit Wikipedia