In her collection of fairy tales The Bloody Chamber, Angela Carter highlighted their sheer bloodiness. Music too has never shied away from gore and grume. In the first half of this concert given by the London Symphony Orchestra, Kazushi Ono replacing the originally advertised Sir John Eliot Gardiner, there were aspects of Dvořák’s folk-inspired The Golden Spinning Wheel where undue attention to the narrative line quickly led to a feeling of revulsion. A gruesome mutilation of the victim and the ultimate throwing of the murderesses to the wolves do not exactly constitute ideal tea-time entertainment. Audiences should never be sent away in a state of trauma.

Kazushi Ono conducts the LSO © Mark Allan | Barbican
Kazushi Ono conducts the LSO
© Mark Allan | Barbican

In musical terms a number of influences are discernible in Dvořák’s work, from Liszt, who began the tradition of programmatic symphonic poems, through to Wagner, whose use of Leitmotifs is reflected in the elements assigned to individual instruments. For example, the heroine Dornička is portrayed in the cor anglais, the spinning wheel emerges in violas and cellos, and the king’s arrivals and departures are indicated by brass fanfares. However, Ono couldn’t quite overcome the episodic and repetitious nature of the material and weave it into a compelling narrative thread, the tension sagging dangerously whenever the pulse slowed.

Nor did he make much of a case for Janáček’s eight-minute-long and rarely-heard work, The Ballad of Blanik, with which this concert opened. There is a sense of unease at the start, recalling the memorable phrase “something nasty in the woodpile” in Cold Comfort Farm, and the composer deploys his signature use of violins in their highest register, but ultimately this miniature has little to say for itself.

Soloists, Kazushi Ono and the London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra © Mark Allan | Barbican
Soloists, Kazushi Ono and the London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra
© Mark Allan | Barbican

Mercifully, there is no blood in Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass, unless you include a degree of hot-blooded spirit, and despite Milan Kundera’s assertion that it is “more an orgy than a mass”. Using the 1927 version edited by Paul Wingfield, which restores the Intrada at both ends of the work, Ono had the benefit of a quartet of native Czech singers. This matters inasmuch as the words and particular inflection of the Czech language carry considerable emotional weight. Most of this work is assigned to the soprano, here Lucie Vagenknechtová, whose vibrancy was displayed in her strawberries-and-cream upper register and impressive chest tones, and especially to the tenor. Aleš Briscein was on commanding form, his ringing tones in the Gloria and negotiation of the challenging high tessitura in the Credo being especially memorable. Jan Martiník was a warmly resonant bass, whereas Lucie Hilscherová in her brief contributions sounded a little underpowered. Above all, the unflagging commitment of the London Symphony Chorus, who had clearly been very well prepared, shone through from start to finish, needle-sharp and powerful in utterance where required, but also softly-controlled and lyrical, for instance in the Agnus Dei.

Despite not being a believer in the traditional sense, Janáček provides in his instrumental writing moments of celestial repose contrasted with the fervent intensity of the choral passages. These were especially apparent at the start of the Sanctus and Benedictus, with a filigree of sweet sounds from the upper strings, keyboard instruments, harp and flute, together with comforting solos from the leader. Elsewhere the many fine contributions from the LSO woodwind section were like diamonds shining in the firmament. At the other end of the dynamic spectrum, the titanic timpani playing, vehement organ solo in the Postlude and zestful brass sonorities provided a compelling demonstration of the composer’s unique inspiration. Ono shaped his large forces with an eye for the grand sweep of the argument, yet allowing the lyrical interludes to emerge naturally in the overall flow.

***11