Gideon Klein, Erwin Schulhoff, Bohuslav Martinů, Leoš Janáček: four 20th-century Czech composers, four very different life stories. Of the four, only Janáček died in his home country. Klein is presumed to have been murdered in a Nazi labour camp in Poland at the age of just 25, Schulhoff made the mistake of escaping eastwards after the invasion of Czechoslovakia, was captured as a Communist and died of tuberculosis in a Bavarian concentration camp, and Martinů fled occupied France for the USA, where he lived in exile for the remainder of his life, dying in Switzerland.

Borodin Quartet © Simon Van Boxtel
Borodin Quartet
© Simon Van Boxtel

All this made a potent background for one of Vladimir Jurowski’s most eclectic yet invigorating concert programmes with the London Philharmonic under the title ‘Life out of Death’, containing only one work that could be described as ‘canonic’. That was Janáček’s Sinfonietta, his celebration of a freed Brno and of Czech independence, which brought the concert to a blazing end with the performers bursting out beyond the confines of the concert platform. But the journey there was also one of accumulation, in terms of musicians – another clever aspect of Jurowski’s programmatic thinking – growing from string orchestra, by way of the wind section to the full orchestra only appearing for the first time after the interval. The emotional trajectory was perhaps more unexpected.

The first work, Gideon Klein’s Partita, was a 1990s arrangement for string orchestra by Vojtěch Saudek of his String Trio. The original trio was written in the Terezín (Teresienstadt) transit camp, where many of Czechoslovakia’s Jewish artists and intellectuals were temporarily held in half-decent conditions for propaganda purposes, before being shipped on to Auschwitz and elsewhere. Composed in 1944, it was Klein’s last work, and given the situation is a surprisingly cheery piece, like other examples of the Terezín legacy, which seem to exemplify the ‘Life out of Death’ theme in showing how music can be used as a defiant counteraction, or even an emotional barrier against the realities of existence. Its three folk-imbued movements are sometimes reminiscent of Bartók, but there’s such latent promise here, in music of buoyancy and freshness, that one can’t help wondering what he might have achieved had circumstances been different. It was certainly a showcase for the LPO’s excellent string players, who coped ably with its tricky rhythms and figurations.

Next came not one but two concertos for string quartet, with the members of the esteemed Borodin Quartet as soloists (a shame that the printed programme neglected to give the current foursome’s names). Schulhoff’s concerto from 1930 pits the quartet against a wind ensemble, which made for a challenging balance that Jurowski’s direction didn’t always manage completely to overcome, and it wasn’t helped by the impression that the composer’s intriguingly textured accompaniment is often more musically interesting than his string writing. But the Largo at the centre of the three-movement work, with its keening chromaticism, had an intense, slow tread that allowed the Borodin’s famed richness of sound to shine, and the often jazzy finale was played with dizzying panache. More Schulhoff in concert programmes, please!

Martinů’s concerto from a year later sees the quartet taking on a full orchestra, yet his solo writing is arguably more demonstrative than Schulhoff’s and balance was less of an issue here, despite the composer’s reputation for musical busyness. Again, the Borodin’s playing was suave and often full-blooded, and the orchestral playing was vibrant and colourful.

Janáček’s Sinfonietta never fails to make an impact, here with its array of 14 extra brass players lined up along the front of the RFH’s choir seats. I’ve certainly heard cleaner accounts – there was the odd premature entry and coordination appeared to get a little out of sync between onstage brass and the rest of the orchestra for a short while in the second movement – but there was plenty to enjoy in the sweep of Jurowski’s conception and in the colour and clarity of many of the wind solos. The fiendish, whooping horn writing in the central movement was accomplished with ease and the extra brass blazed impressively in the outer movements, Jurowski also briefly allowing them to shadow the muted orchestral trumpets for a passage towards the end of the second movement – an evocative intervention on the conductor’s part.

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