If Edward Gardner organised travel tours then, on the basis of this evening's Central European expedition with the BBCSO, he'd probably specialise in Extreme Sports. Despite the burbling streams with which Smetana's Vltava trickles into life, this was no pastoral stroll on the gentle slopes of Bohemia, Hungary and Poland. Bitterness and knife violence, warrior maidens luring passing knights into a massacre, and filicide, torture and execution ensured plenty of blood was spilt. In between, we went paragliding on eagle's wings, courtesy of Péter Eötvös. It's any wonder the Barbican didn't have St John's Ambulance on standby.
The programme drew big-boned, red-blooded performances from the BBC Symphony, right from the punchy brass and nagging timpani in Jealousy, the tense prelude Leoš Janáček originally intended for his opera, Jenůfa. Taras Bulba, Janáček's orchestral rhapsody based on Gogol's tale of Cossacks waging war on Poland, is even grimmer. First, Taras discovers his younger son, Andrei, has fallen for a Polish princess and is slain by his father on the battlefield. Gardner then drew sombre string playing as Ostap, the elder son, is captured and taken away to be tortured and executed, a squealing clarinet pleading after the wild mazurka. Finally, Taras himself is caught and burned at the stake, though his prophecy that a tsar shall arise to lead the Russians to glory meant a stirring finale, organ, brass and Orthodox bells pealing triumphantly.
Poland was presented in a more positive light via Karol Szymanowski's Second Violin Concerto, given passionate advocacy by Tasmin Little. It's a far cry from the perfumed, intoxicating language of his earlier concerto, being earthier and almost Bartókian in its driving folk rhythms. Little gave a muscular performance, especially of the cadenza by Paweł Kochański, the concerto's recipient. Fierce double-stopping was matched by lyrical interludes of great tenderness.
The UK première of Péter Eötvös' The Gliding of the Eagle in the Skies provided visual stimulation, even if the aural ride wasn't always comfortable. A trio of piercing piccolos, each tuned slightly apart, and discordant harp twangs, imitating a cimbalom, added sour colour. A pair of cájons – wooden snare drums from Peru wedged between the percussionists' knees – were slapped to provide buzzing commentary either side of Gardner's rostrum. Eötvös' work was inspired by a Basque folk song which evoked a vision of an eagle, gliding across the sky. There were certainly moments when guest leader Maya Iwabuch's solo violin soared above glassy strings but the work ends abruptly, seemingly mid-flight.
Two tone poems from Smetana's Má vlast had earlier brought rare glimmers of light to this dark programme, crystalline flutes winding their way into a broad, expansive reading of Vltava. Gardner, springing from the knees, gave the peasant wedding dance lilting inflections and the jolly theme for the knights' arrival in Šárka trotted along innocuously. It was all a ruse though, the river's progress through the Rapids of St John especially turbulent, while Šárka ends in the bloodiest manner. After a beguiling clarinet solo where Šárka – tied to a tree – entices Ctirad and his comrades, the knights' mead is drugged, the bassoon snoring somnolently. The warrior maidens then inflict their violent revenge on unfaithful men, trombones weighing in for the slaughter. Fantastically played, but not always a concert for the faint-hearted. Travel insurance recommended.
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