The interpretational era has flaws. In a time when multiple conductors would much rather approach a work as though it represents the storming of the Bastille, sound – like gemstones unearthed in a vast supply hundreds of years ago – has lost its once-reputed preciousness. Certain musicians become so intrinsically netted in the tight entanglement of passion, fire, abstract, sentimental concepts that the form of music steadily unclasps itself. ‘Passion’ can be heard in overlapping, mutually exclusive, quick arpeggios; in chromatics gobbling-up each other or a set of grunting brass that sound as though its players perform facing different walls. Feelings strive to create an autonomous art; one free from the ‘fetters’ of technical purity. Critics fall for it more often than expected.
Jakub Hrůša, on the other hand, is not one to exploit a trend for no sake but his own facilitation. Above all it is his quest to engineer the vehicle of great music. The first step that he takes to mount this ship is forging a sheer sound; that indispensable component which some music lovers think is just ancillary. Though this is just the first part of a centigrade of different measures he must implement, he supersedes most of his current rivals just through its accomplishment.
In the first work from this Royal Festival Hall concert, Hrůša’s rituals of excellence were unwittingly boycotted by the soloist. Embarking on Brahms’ Piano Concerto no. 2 in B flat minor, Rudolf Buchbinder had the necessary technical prowess to operate this magnum opus. Yet this performance sadly lacked the motley cast of characters that need to put in an appearance in this work. Whether he was tackling bulky sets of chords or languid, luscious melodies that simmer in diminuendo, Buchbinder’s playing was controlled in both dynamics and pace – but persistently choppy. It was as if the sections of each movement were divided into building blocks which, with a few exceptions, were the same size and colour and arranged homogeneously in a row. The pauses between phrases were no less premeditated than the marks of stone that underlie the measurement of kilograms on scales.
And so all these tones of preregistered passion almost intruded upon Hrůša’s consummate mastery – but they didn’t succeed. Admittedly there was a handful of chord patterns that came out almost too neatly; too directorially managed, unwilling to engage in a little rubato. Nonetheless every instrument surrendered to absolute coalescence. There were no animals astray from this herd; no renegades that sought to call attention to untimely entrances or much-too-elongated notes. The high and low strings represented flocks of two different species which alternated the vibrato of their texture just as certain birds can fly more thickly or more sparsely in their crowds. Brass instruments, which in togetherness tend to create the kind of tentative cohesion that a burst of spray paint does, were here a rare example of graffiti administered neatly. The sullen cries on a trio of violin chords a few minutes into the third movement were delivered on three separate planes of sorrowful intensity – as they ought to have been.
But if ever a chance was so rapturously snatched to demonstrate the confluence of artistry and technical precision in a work, it was Hrůša’s rendition of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony. In it he melded the two without any struggle; fusing a gamut of different-flowing sounds to create chemistry between the partners. While some may have considered the sometimes overtly long pauses between the first movement’s two sets of two chords to be a little too sweetly Romantic, other artistic choices were indisputably effusive of character. The variance between the tempo of the woodwind and its imitative strings was well caught; abrupt fortes were resplendent in their very haphazardness. An encroaching backbone of cellos appeared to menace the lulling of graceful strings. And when towards the end of the first movement, there was a zig-zag-like, jagged uprising of strings, we heard piquantly propulsive, simultaneously elegant attacks of furore.
Throughout the second movement the texture of strings could vary from the buzz of a volatile fuse to an ozone layer-like vast ring of nebulous breeze. Vibrato from the double bass was sometimes heavy enough to create its own ominous bellows. All this culminated in an explosive final movement where the instruments appeared possessed by the compulsion to engage in immediate flight; petrified in their pupil-dilating fear.
Just as his predecessors tended to perseverate what we already knew was true, so Hrůša once again confirmed that instruments are prisms through which lights of great composers are reflected – rather than refracted or obscured. It is a godsend just to know that someone still bows down to the tradition, and a joy to hear a master do it with such reverence.
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