The first page of Strauss’ tone poem Don Juan is nerve-shredding: the bête noire of orchestral auditionees the world over. The piece opens with a furious upwards cascade of semiquavers, and a bravura leap into the heights. My old violin teacher told me the story of working with a famous conductor who would race out to the podium and start the piece before the audience finished applauding so as to conceal any fumbles.

Jakub Hrůša © Andreas Herzau
Jakub Hrůša
© Andreas Herzau

Jakub Hrůša laughs in the face of such danger. His downbeat for the Philharmonia was a rousing punch in the air, launching a bravura performance with élan. A daring opening tempo was a gauntlet thrown down to players who responded by shrugging off the enormous technical challenges of the work. Hrůša, unassuming as he might look, was clearly thrilled by Strauss’ showmanship and unafraid to play it up; he jumps and grasps and seizes the great dramatic pauses that punctuate the work. I’m sure there was even an audible gasp at one point.

The sound he draws from the Philharmonia is warm and well-blended – traditionally central European – and especially effective in the dreamy second interlude. Sometimes the sound became too settled in its splendour and lost the contrapuntal definition Strauss’ complex textures require. But this homogenous sound was spiked with well-chosen details: glittering contributions from the harp, darkly seductive cor anglais solos, and bravura trombones.

Martin Helmchen joined a much-reduced orchestra for Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 22 in E flat major. It’s a work with surprisingly complex textures, beefed up with timpani and trumpets, and opens with pairs of woodwinds toying with each other’s dissonances and suspensions. Helmchen cut through with rather rigorous passagework and a percussive right hand, and it took time for orchestra and soloist to relax into the work. The development was boldly atmospheric (as if to compete with the Strauss that had come before) and this assertive music-making did not run the risk of understatement.

In the Andante the woodwind soloists shone, particularly the contributions from flute and bassoon, and matched Helmchen’s melting legato, whose lyrical lines were given rhythmic support from a well-defined left hand. Helmchen’s melancholy interjections were well-integrated into the darker orchestral drama and balanced the orchestra’s more ardent gestures, resolving into a coda of gentle pathos. The extreme simplicity of the Rondo’s theme requires perfect dynamic control and wit; Helmchen’s understatement was reflected in a final cadenza that was surprisingly plangent.

In Hrůša 's hands Beethoven's Fourth Symphony was sleek and powerful, where slender melody meets lithe intensity. This leonine symphony has less ominous grandeur than its immediate neighbours, and sometimes is characterised as a digression on the journey towards the dynamism of Beethoven's middle period. But Hrůša 's rhythmic precision and focus on pulse made it hum with an energy that clarified its place between the larger Eroica and C minor symphonies. After an opening of quiet brooding rather than melodrama, its thematic characters were sharply drawn: rambunctious, staccato strings were set against more soulful woodwind contributions.

The second movement precisely articulated Hrůša 's approach, which observed a keen tension between the pulsing accompaniment and the cantabile impulses of the melody it both supports and contests. Hrůša 's lightness of touch meant that the Scherzo's diminished seventh chords seemed quirky and mischievous rather than doom-y. There are powerful moments of lyrical flourishing: the trio's choir of woodwinds summoned the pastoral freshness of the F-major symphony. The final movement – whose scurrying passages are another audition trauma, not least for the poor solo bassoon – was taken at a fearless lick.

Even its legato moments had a certain determination. There is plenty of ebullience – even aggression – in Beethoven but Hrůša never let the energies of this music become ungainly or ugly. Smoothing out these outbursts might, for some, repudiate something vital in Beethoven, but there's no doubt this performance had coruscating, if not blinding, intensity.

****1