Lilt and sway, and an abundance of joy. That was certainly the order of the day with Dvořák‘s colourful Slavonic Dances in the second half of this Czech and Russian programme from the Philharmonia Orchestra. But if concertgoers were expecting some fleeting fancies of just a little passing interest on the way to this Czech staple, then the first half would have been a stark wake-up call. Any mention of Shostakovich on a programme usually suggests something of substance, but the most assertive brush stroke in Jakub Hrůša’s latest canvas was the opener, proving to be anything but a mere palate cleanser.

Jakub Hrůša © Andreas Herzau
Jakub Hrůša
© Andreas Herzau

Miloslav Kabeláč may not immediately spring to mind when we come to list the great Czech composers, but he could well be the greatest one we’ve never heard of. A victim of censure from the Soviet authorities in his native Czechoslovakia, Kabeláč gained some recognition with his distinct musical language, employing modernist techniques along the way and creating impact from seemingly simple structures. His intriguingly titled passacaglia The Mystery of Time was composed in 1957 during a fruitful post-war period, though little heard on these shores, but with Hrůša as the catalyst this piece has now hit London afresh with a sense of “Why haven’t we heard this before?” It is a substantial 20-minute piece, austere and violent with hints of Shostakovich, exploring, as Hrůša explains, the phenomenon of time through music. 

It follows a simple arc form, and Hrůša’s masterful control over the architecture of the piece and the quality and intensity of the Philharmonia’s playing gave the work real credibility, from the air of stillness in the haunting flute and violin exchanges at the beginning, through the procession-like pulse as the clock-ticking motif coursed relentlessly along, building up to a terrifying and cataclysmic central section with angular jabbing and instruments stretched to their limits. Hrůša concluded Kabeláč‘s grand statement with a sense of despair and mystery as the music receded into slower, sombre tones once more. 

Meanwhile, in the same year that Kabeláč was writing his piece, another composer who was also no stranger to Soviet censure, Dmitri Shostakovich, wrote his Piano Concerto no. 2 in F major in uncharacteristically lighter mood for his son Maxim’s 19th birthday. The work was given a crisp and frivolous account by in-demand pianist Simon Trpčeski, who displayed impressive technical ability in the outer movements, full of precision, dexterity and tongue-in-cheek playfulness. With the exception of one passage of slight mistiming early on, the orchestra was sharp and boisterous and on point with the soloist. The romantic second movement was satisfyingly melancholy, with Trpčeski gently flowing and enticingly delicate over the luscious warmth of the orchestra to create a nice contrast with the exuberance of the surrounding movements. An encore saw Trpčeski join forces with Philharmonia leader Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay and principal cellist Timothy Walden in a lively second movement of Shostakovich’s Piano Trio no. 2 in E minor. 

Hrůša conducting Dvořák has now become something to look out for. The composer’s first set of Eight Slavonic Dances, Op.46 was as joyful and genuine as you would hope, not completely flawless, but with Hrůša’s copious verve and well judged ebb and flow, he was able to bring out just that little bit of extra detailing, particularly in all those wonderful middle and lower voices that Dvořák wrote so well for. Hrůša himself was animated and dance-like, skipping over the podium as though it was a foot too short, and creating a lovely sense of hold in the many changes of pace. The orchestra was in joyous mood, with lyrical and florid woodwinds, rich vibrant strings, and robust brass exuding occasional schmoozy oompah. With thankfully a proper Presto in the final Furiant, this wrapped up a fine evening’s performance, although the real question is when are we going to hear more Kabeláč?