Musical discoveries abound in Bychkov’s Cleveland Orchestra program

Cleveland Orchestra
Semyon Bychkov, conductor
Katia Labèque, piano
Marielle Labèque, piano
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
May 9, 2019

Glanert: Weites Land, Musik mit Brahms
Bruch: Concerto for Two Pianos, Op. 88a
 Encore:
 Ravel: Le jardin féerique, from Ma mère l’Oye
Smetana: Vyšehrad, Vltava, and Šárka from Má vlast

The Cleveland Orchestra certainly has a knack for presenting programs that resist the tried-and-true, and Thursday’s concert was no exception, another triumph of imaginative programming with both works on the first half receiving their inaugural performances from this ensemble. Guest conductor Semyon Bychkov has championed the works of contemporary composer Detlev Glanert, and opened the evening with the US premiere of the 2013 work Weites Land. Roughly translating to English as Wide Open Land, the work also bears the subtitle Musik mit Brahms. Like Brahms, Glanert hails from Hamburg, and the work of the elder composer has often served as his guiding lighthere quite patently so, with the arching primary theme of the Fourth Symphony serving as the present work’s structural backbone. An obvious invocation of the symphony opened, familiar for a fleeting moment, then morphing into dissipated modernity. The Brahms theme served as guideposts at various intervals, while the wide, open spaces between were filled with colorfully dissonant filigree, often unexpected yet still approachable, and ultimately a brief Brahmsian gesture brought matters to a close.

A true rarity followed in the Concerto for Two Pianos by Max Bruch, featuring the acclaimed Labèque sisters (who opted for the Bruch in favor of the initially programmed work for the same forces by Martinů). Bruch completed the work in 1915, near the tail end of his career, in fact with another sibling duo in mind, Rose and Ottilie Sutro. To the composer’s dismay, the dedicatees performed the work in a vastly simplified version, and Bruch’s original version didn’t surface to the public until the 1970s. Bruch’s intentions were certainly respected and challenges easily surmounted Thursday evening; between the two pianists, the opening theme was presented in eight octaves, a commanding beginning saturated in solemnity. An exacting fugue followed, beginning in the pianos, and blossoming to great power when the orchestra joined.

Bychkov and the Labèque sisters’ 1993 recording of the Bruch concerto

A slow introduction marked the next movement, with sweeping arpeggios on the keyboards and gentle touches in the oboe from Frank Rosenwein. The movement proper was of scherzo-like playfulness, contrasted by the lyrical beauty of the succeeding. The octave theme returned in the finale, a passionate last vestige of German Romanticism (indeed, the four movement structure certainly pointed towards the Brahms concertos as inspiration). A work which soloists and conductor clearly believe in (having recorded it some years ago), though to my ears not the most melodically rewarding. The duo encored with the final segment of Ravel’s Ma mère l’Oye – gorgeous playing which said more in those few minutes than in Bruch’s twenty-five.

Bychkov currently serves as music director of the Czech Philharmonic, and accordingly was able to offer penetrating insights to the first three selections of Smetana’s Má vlast. A work central to Czech musical culture, it inaugurates the storied Prague Spring International Music Festival every year on May 12, the anniversary of the composer’s death – coming just days after the present performance. Vyšehrad opened with a pair of harps, lush and rhapsodic, to set the stage for the epic tale of the namesake fortress. The Vyšehrad theme – which reappears throughout the cycle – was first sounded by the horns, warm and mellow. The vicissitudes of the castle through history were depicted, always majestic in the end.

By far the most recognizable of the six tone poems, Vltava began with liquescent flutes in evocation of the confluence of the springs that form the titular river. Matters swelled to a richly lyrical theme, arching, aching, and the picturesque journey of the river was painted in delirious detail. Most memorable was the “night music”, fantastical and sublime, as well as the appearance of the Vyšehrad theme when the river snaked its way through Prague, displaying the full splendor of the Cleveland brass. The ferocity with which Šárka opened portended the darkly murderous tale to come. Folk-inflected material and the lambent clarinet of Afendi Yusuf offered some momentary respite, yet the music inexorably culminated in a violent, gruesome end. One’s appetite was certainly whetted for more Smetana – as noted in the program books, the orchestra hasn’t performed Má vlast complete since 1976, so surely it is high time for a traversal of the full cycle!

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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