Tonight’s concert opened with the warm string tones and broad, sweeping phrases of Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen Suite; the UK première of a little-known arrangement by František Jílek. Debuted after Václav Talich’s more familiar 1937 suite, Jílek’s arrangement hasn’t enjoyed the same exposure in concert halls, even though both conductors were highly esteemed interpreters of Janáček’s work in their day. Whereas Talich only used material from Act I of the opera and with alternative orchestrations, Jílek reverted to Janáček’s original orchestral passages, using material from all three acts. In contrast with Talich’s intricate zoning-in on the first act, the effect of Jílek’s approach in performance was to create a broad overview of the opera – which actually suited Jakub Hrůša’s big-picture conducting style to a tee. The work also went down well with the younger members of the audience in this so-called family concert, as Janáček’s skill at characterisation was expertly brought to the fore with exciting rhythms and orchestral textures.

James Crabb
James Crabb

Rolf Hind’s new accordion concerto The Tiniest House of Time took the audience on a very different journey, inspired by a mixture of ancient Eastern poetry, folk and gypsy music, meditative techniques and his own philosophies on life and spirituality. Hind focused on the experience of the present moment: the work opened with a cacophony of sound including a piercingly high piccolo, and presented seven speeds of music at once. This overwhelmingly chaotic passage interrupted the first movement several times, interspersed with accordion flurries – the objective being to express the insanity of the poem by the 13th-century poet Rumi on which the movement is based. A few unsolicited vocal interruptions from the audience were a little unsettling and will surely be cut out of the broadcast when it is aired; however, to my mind these disturbances weren’t entirely out of place with the theme of the work.

A calmer, more reflective atmosphere prevailed in the second movement, “Tonglen” – a Tibetan meditative practice where one inhales others’ suffering and exhales happiness. Soloist James Crabb was pushed down to the deepest notes of the accordion as he made the instrument “breathe”. In his programme notes, Hind indicates that he intended the accordion to be a “magician, party-animal, healer, rabble-rouser”. I cannot say that I recognised this characterisation a great deal, since the accordion didn’t appear to play as much of a solo role as one might expect. Undoubtedly the most magical moment of the piece was at the very end, which, despite nervous giggles from the audience, had me spellbound. Based on another of Rumi’s poems, the fourth movement again focused on being solely in the present, but this time the chaos of the first movement had been reduced to music in its simplest gestures. The accordion imitated very realistic birdsong accompanied by high string harmonics, percussionists poured water methodically from one bowl to another, and string players mimicked the beating of a bird’s wings by rhythmically swishing their bows through the air.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s familiar Scheherazade made a welcome second half. Like the Janáček, its programmatic nature and inspired orchestration made it a fantastic choice for a family concert. The performance was technically flawless with impeccable balance; being a popular fixture in the repertoire, this orchestra has likely played the work countless times before. Full of exotic arabesque figures, leader Stephen Bryant’s violin solos were exquisite, as were others from the lead cello and wind section. The challenge for this piece was keeping it fresh and interesting, which Hrůša achieved with contrasts of dynamic, colour and phrasing.

The most impressive feature of the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s playing tonight was its remarkable wealth of orchestral colours, which were thoroughly explored in every piece. I must admit at first glance I had concerns over the programming of a half-hour contemporary work in a supposedly family-friendly concert. In my opinion, Hind’s concerto isn’t the type of performance you can just let wash over you, although it certainly had a great deal of audible and visual treats to captivate the audience. To enjoy and appreciate the piece I needed to read Hind’s programme notes and the corresponding poems in order to understand the interesting ideology behind it. Nevertheless, the young children behind me appeared fascinated and didn’t make a sound.

BBC Symphony Orchestra / HrusaSarah Reid reviews the BBC Symphony Orchestra playing Rolf Hind, Janáček and Rimsky-Korsakov at the Barbican3