I simply cannot remember when I first heard Beethoven 5 live, but I know exactly when I first encountered Dvořák’s Fifth Symphony in the concert hall. The year was 1968, the venue London’s Royal Festival Hall, the orchestra was the RPO and the conductor a little-known Yugoslav (actually, Slovene), Bogo Leskovic. With what Donald Tovey called “the lightest symphonic opening since Beethoven’s Pastoral”, that combination of lyrical intensity and tingling excitement immediately blew me away, and it has been a firm favourite ever since. Dvořák a pale imitation of his contemporary Brahms? Not when you consider that this work was completed in 1875, a year before the latter composer’s First Symphony. So expectations were high on my part ahead of this performance by the Munich Philharmonic with Jakub Hrůša in charge. 

Jakub Hrůša © Münchner Philharmoniker
Jakub Hrůša
© Münchner Philharmoniker

Hrůša’s approach was entirely consistent throughout all four movements: nothing was ever hurried, and indeed at 45 minutes this was one of the most expansive accounts I can ever recall. The woodwind soloists had all the time in the world to phrase their melodic lines, from the chuckling clarinets and silvery flutes at the outset to the dark and rustic bass clarinet detail in the Finale. Grounded on only four double basses, the Munich strings delivered a warm and richly textured tapestry of sound, often lovingly shaped by the conductor, especially in the slow movement. Everything was well balanced and even the contribution of the triangle in the Scherzo was not overlooked. And yet, whether it was the unfamiliarity of the score or the fact that Hrůša was not working with his usual band of Bavarian musicians, the playing sounded at times a little too careful, not helped by his tendency to relax rather excessively in the Finale.

Moving from the unaccountable neglect of an undoubted masterpiece to another comparative rarity: Poulenc’s Organ Concerto, which is one of the few such concertos to have established itself in the repertory. It owes its existence to a commission by the Princesse de Polignac (heiress to the vast Singer sewing-machine fortune) whose only stipulation was that, as an organ obsessive and performer herself, the solo part should not be too taxing. Cast in a single continuous movement with seven tempo markings, and only strings and timpani as a foil, it has one of those arresting G minor flourishes at the start which not only harks back to Bach’s Fantasia and Fugue in the same key but which in its filmic qualities reminded me of Gothic horror stories.

Christian Schmitt, Jakub Hrůša and the Munich Philharmonic © Münchner Philharmoniker
Christian Schmitt, Jakub Hrůša and the Munich Philharmonic
© Münchner Philharmoniker

The soloist was Christian Schmitt, the Bamberg Symphony’s resident organist, seated on the conductor’s left at a portable console with four keyboards. There was a fine overall balance between him and the ensemble, an occasional boominess in the timpani notwithstanding, and the razor-sharp interaction in the Molto agitato section, with dramatic accents in the lush string polyphony, was quite thrilling. The recurring Allegro giocoso theme, with echoes of the Keystone Cops, had the right degree of impish fun, and at the other end of the dynamic scale the viola solo with soft pizzicato accompaniment just before the close was both serene and satisfying. Altogether it was like sipping from a flute of expensive champagne.

Again, as is so often the case with streaming from German venues,  the players were socially distanced and spread out over the entire performing space in the Gasteig, but no face masks were in evidence. Nor was there any quirkiness in the lighting and staging, though Benedict Mirow’s video direction focused more on the soloist’s hands, the conductor’s head and individual close-ups rather than the ensemble as a whole.

 

 This performance was reviewed from the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra's live video stream

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