They say there's no smoke without fire. Czech conductor Jakub Hrůša has been lurking in the wings for a while, but is now starting to be noticed as a real contender. Emerging from the embers of the Bohemian woods, he has quietly forged a growing reputation as a safe pair of hands, especially with music from his homeland, plying his trade with an increasing number of guest appearances with top-class orchestras. This season, for example, sees him debuting with such outfits as the Chicago Symphony, Boston Symphony, New York Philharmonic and Zurich Tonhalle orchestras. This says a lot.
In this lively programme, Hrůša showed that he was keen not only to provide the necessary spark to ignite the music, but also that he liked to subtly fan the flames, preferring to let the music speak for itself, cajoling and nudging it into shape and giving attention to detail and character.
The first two pieces were a bit of a mixed bag. Opening with a German composer's take on Hungary but with a Czech twist, Hrůša presented the last five of Brahms' Hungarian Dances (Nos.17-21), orchestrated by Dvořák. Hrůša set off in fine, commanding form, creating smooth, lilting lines and plenty of bon viveur in the livelier dances. His clear conducting style was dynamic and elegant, bringing out pointed exclamations from the orchestra with flourishes and sudden jerks of athleticism. However, there were some timing issues early on and a sense of dragging in places, although the articulation did improve as the pieces progressed, and the Philharmonia's wonderfully rich and robust sound permeated throughout.
Lithuanian-born violinist Julian Rachlin was a worthy last-minute replacement for Sergey Khachatryan, who unfortunately had to withdraw from this performance of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in D major. There is always a huge amount of respect for people who step in at the eleventh-hour, and Rachlin, who is well-versed in this most famous and technically difficult of violin concertos, adapted admirably. Tentative at first, Rachlin eventually found his groove, demonstrating superb technical ability and producing subtle light and shade. The first movement was patchy, however, with an occasional lack of definition in note lengths and some intonation and timing difficulties. But with Hrůša extra attentive and the Philharmonia sympathetic in support, there were some fine moments of chamber-like clarity and a healthy dose of strident aggression. The Canzonetta showed Rachlin holding some beautifully sustained lines, full of delicacy and longing, and all glitches disappeared in the Finale, which was dynamic and completely on the money – crisp, warm, well-shaped and completely in sync, with Rachlin expressing raw power and passion.
The winner in this concert, however, was Dvořák's ebullient Symphony no. 8 in G major. This felt like Dvořák as it should be played – lyrical, full-bodied and authentic. As Hrůša himself said in a recent Bachtrack interview, he looks to bring out the "proper cantabile of the melodic line" and the natural breathing, and loves to indicate clearly where each phrase goes. His affable but direct podium manner made it very clear how he wanted it played. Clear baton and hand gestures, facial expressions and whole body movements all helped to sculpt the piece through subtle changes, nicely accented phrases and careful control over dynamics, although it was slightly over-controlled. Hrůša maintained poise in the rocking Bohemian lilt and sway passages, and his contrasts between the melancholy and the joyous had the Philharmonia's free-flowing strings and chirruping winds enjoying their dialogues, and with a particularly rich blend in the brass. The heart-warming violas and cellos following the trumpet call in the Finale heralded all departments to take their turns in the limelight, with glistening wind solos, grinding strings playing with gusto and horns wailing generously, bringing this most appealing and melodic of symphonies to a rip-roaring climax and magnifying the real sense of bon ami between conductor and orchestra.
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