Home is where the heart is. Or is it? I was left unsure after this concert. Dvořák seems to agree in his Cello Concerto, with its Bohemian folk tunes, but Hèctor Parra’s house in the suite from his opera Wilde is nothing short of monstrous. Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony is more ambiguous, noble in parts, as befitting Russia’s military triumphs at the end of the Second World War, yet manic and uneasy in others. It was the task of the Orquestra Simfònica de Barcelona i Nacional de Catalunya to navigate these contrasts, with Kazushi Ono at the helm. This they did successfully, but not because they provided a conclusive answer.  

Kazushi Ono © Stofleth
Kazushi Ono
© Stofleth

Based on a libretto by Händl Klaus, composer-in-residence Hèctor Parra’s 2015 opera Wilde paints a nightmarish picture of a home. The protagonist, Günter, is a young doctor on a train journey back from humanitarian work in Moldavia. He alights at the wrong station, finding himself in a peculiar town that seems entirely deserted, save for the strange Flick brothers. Since the next train is not until the following day, the doctor accepts the brothers’ request to accompany them home to attend to their three ill sisters. Slowly but surely, Günter is physically and morally degraded by this troubled family to such an extent that he is literally absorbed by them.

Chez Flick, it would seem, is not the most idyllic place for a stopover, yet Parra leaves us with no choice but to join Günter in his claustrophobic imprisonment, through music that is absorbing to the point of extreme discomfort. The frightened moans of the bass clarinet, representing Günter, emanated from some dark corner over creaking hinges and clanking hammers in a percussion section containing some unorthodox instruments. Never have I been more disturbed by a cardboard box. Parra’s fascination with novel textures was evident: ethereal glissandi in the strings set distressed woodwind wails against a hair-raisingly fitful backdrop that alternated between the frenzied and the eerie. The deafening conclusion was menacing, anguished, and utterly soul-destroying.

Thank goodness for Gautier Capuçon and Dvořák’s Cello Concerto! It was a joyful relief to emerge from Parra’s torment into the delights of the exuberant B minor melodies that open the Allegro. The lovely horn in the first slower section allowed me to feel at home for the first time all evening, while Capuçon’s entry was splendidly lyrical, with a rich tone that he sustained throughout. The communication between Ono and Capuçon was commendable; together, they drew out all natural pauses to beautiful effect. Each note, especially in the lovely Adagio ma non troppo, felt carefully considered, but relaxed and buoyant. Capuçon handled the cadenza of this second movement wonderfully, making the most of double-stopped harmonies that led to truly exquisite dialogue with flute and bassoon.

A slightly hyperactive triangle did not detract from more fabulous interactions between orchestra and soloist in the finale. This concerto is humbly virtuosic, showcasing the cello but never being unnecessarily showy with it. Capuçon demonstrated this perfectly in his duet with the solo violin, both players responding to one another in an enthralling way that translated to an explosion of golden colour. A triumphant flourish rounded off forty minutes of admirable playing.

No less admirable was the orchestra’s interpretation of Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony, lauded as an anthem to the heroism of the Russians in wartime. Appropriately, at its 1945 Moscow première, the artillery signal that the Red Army had begun its march towards Germany rang around the hall in the silence before Prokofiev began conducting. Thankfully, no cannons were heard in Barcelona, but the majestic depth to the brass meant that the melody thundered nobly along, the players doing great justice to Prokofiev’s colourful writing and grand vision that is typified in the brash coda to the first movement.

The strings shone during the Allegro marcato, which was so tightly together that it zinged and buzzed with electricity. Energetic playing led to some really fun cello nips, viola gunshots and bass grunts that accented the perpetual movement. Ono was driving a train that threatened to run away at any moment, but his minimal gestures, pared down to mere head quivers that provoked mechanically-together pizzicati, kept everything on track.

After such precision, the uneven lilt of the Adagio unsettled. Was Prokofiev saying something less positive about his homeland, for all its military might? Screaming trumpets and eerie violins threatened a return to Parra’s world, but the clarinet in the Allegro giocoso scooped the orchestra out of those black depths with real feeling. The bombastic ending crashed around at a high volume that was appropriate for this evening of contrasts. I may have left feeling unsure about the perfectness of home, but I was sure that the heart of the orchestra was present throughout.