Czech conductor Jakub Hrůša arrived for his debut week at the BSO Thursday in a fury of blood and thunder in an all-Eastern European program that pictorialized the orchestra’s sonic depth and breadth. Along with him came a Boston favorite soloist, violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann, making his 12th appearance (by program) at Symphony Hall (curiously, since his debut in 1988 with Seiji Ozawa, he has never performed here with the BSO Music Director conducting).
There were two works by Czech composers on the bill, the first being the opener, Smetana’s Šárka, the third number in the six-entry Má Vlast cycle of tone poems. While some of the cycle, as it happens the most popular, depict the natural world of Bohemia, others go into history and legend, and Šárka is one of the latter. The story is one of those “hell hath no fury…” revenge tales whereby the titulaire, leader of a band of female warriors, having been jilted, takes out an invading force of men by first luring them in, pretending to be a damsel in distress, then slipping them a mickey and having her forces come in and slaughter every man jack of them. For those familiar with the Gilbert and Sullivan canon, this can be understood as the nightmare version of Princess Ida. Smetana does an excellent job in this nine-minute bloodbath of finding music to characterize Šárka’s rage, her false siren-call of distress (she has herself tied to a tree)—in a marvelous clarinet solo silkily performed by William Hudgins—and her victim’s hapless infatuation (carried by the cellos, whom Hrůša had stand as a section in the call-out). After a big-bang opening on the “rage” theme, Hrůša did all the right things with dynamics and tempo shifts; we especially applaud the delicacy of the cymbals (Kyle Brightwell, we think) in the march-like tune of the invaders.
Zimmermann next provided a very splendid performance—in front of a music stand, interestingly, which he only appeared to consult when turning the page—of the Bartók Violin Concerto No. 2 (which, of course, used to be just “the” Bartók Violin Concerto until the score of No. 1 turned up in the 1950s). Written in 1937 after the composer had completed Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, it comes near the beginning of Bartók’s final compositional phase, in which the noisy modernism of his middle period softened and his natural Romantic inclinations were allowed to reassert themselves (no, this was not a result of his pandering to American tastes, as this all preceded his emigration to the US). The sound of this fabulous piece, probably one of the top three violin concertos of the 20th century, is the essential Bartók sound, opening with a beautiful, modally-inflected but regularly shaped melody over gentle harp strums, with passagework that introduces some of the more jagged and harmonically crunchy features of the 1920s. The score is also replete with Bartók’s innovations in sonority, especially in string technique: the snap-pizzicato, col legno scraping, and so forth. These sounds are more convincing in some places than others, where they still, after all these years, have an air of arbitrariness about them, though in the slow movement, they were absolutely perfectly placed. There is razzle-dazzle aplenty in the solo part, and Zimmermann gave it the full measure of brilliance and, where required, grit. In the slow movement variations on another exquisite melody, Hrůša kept the accompaniment, except in the couple of loud ones, to a hushed delicatissimo, to great effect, as where the celesta floated to the surface in a few riffs torn from MFSPC. The finale, whose theme is based on the first movement’s, took off seamlessly from the slow movement and sailed confidently with all sheets. Zimmermann engaged in silent dialogue with the orchestra, his head bobbing their part (and he sometimes provided his own percussion accompaniment with his foot). This was obviously a labor of love on everyone’s part, so we feel a little hesitant to note that there were places where the wind passages lacked edge and brilliance. All in all, though, a superior production, which the audience acknowledged with enough curtain-calls to generate an encore, in the shape of Ernst Schliephake’s astonishing transcription/arrangement of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G Minor, op. 23 No. 5, with more notes in it than one can imagine anyone having the fingers to play, but Zimmermann knocked everyone’s socks off doing so.
After intermission, the blood-and-thunder theme resumed, with the thunder part taken by the Halloween-comes-early presentation of Rimsky-Korsakov’s rendition of Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain (though it was St. John’s Eve, and not All-Hallows Eve that Mussorgsky was writing about). While Rimsky’s posh orchestration is a showpiece of color, which the BSO provided aplenty while Hrůša loved the big build-ups, we were disappointed that this young European conductor didn’t bring the increasingly popular revival of Mussorgsky’s raw, vibrant original to Symphony Hall with him. If you want to know about the crackle and edge of the original, in contrast to the rough-edges-polished away Rimsky version, go no farther than Valery Gergiev’s window-rattling treatment with the BBC Orchestra at the 2004 Proms, here.
The closing work was one new to the BSO, Leoš Jánaček’s 1915 three-movement orchestral rhapsody Taras Bulba, a piece reflecting Jánaček’s infatuation with pan-Slavism and Russia in particular (ever so slightly misplaced here, as will be noted). It is based on a story by the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol, about a family of Cossacks from Ukraine (not Russia, at least not yet), headed by the eponymous father of the clan. The three sanguinary movements depict the deaths of each of the father’s two sons, the first at the hands of the old man himself for having betrayed their nationalist faith by siding with the Poles who then ruled Ukraine (yes! The Poles were once rulers of others), the second by the Poles after a torture session, and finally the father, burned at the stake. The orchestration is vivid, lurid even (the second son’s torture is evinced by the cries of the E-flat clarinet, a torturous instrument if ever there was one, though Jánaček’s rather oddly elegant line, perfectly rendered by Thomas Martin, pales in comparison to the shrieks Mahler and Shostakovich elicited on the instrument). Hrůša’s leadership again emphasized dynamic contrasts, extremes even, which surely would have pleased the composer. The brass section was in its glory, with all hands on deck (the orchestral forces for the Smetana were large, but for Mussorgsky and Jánaček they were enormous: we lost count of how many contrabasses were on stage, and for good measure James David Christie was at the organ console).
Truth to tell, we have some issues with this work. First, the musical pictorialism was not as acute as Smetana’s: Jánaček at this point was really more of an opera composer and this story seemed to want a libretto. This, combined with Jánaček’s general disjointed style—the only really sustained bit of music was the nationalistic peroration at the end—made for a degree of confusion over where one is at any moment, though there were some spectacularly wonderful chordal progressions here and there. Second, and one hesitates to put this forward, there is a sense of queasiness, of moral objection that this piece engenders, not about the violence depicted, but the unquestioning nationalistic fanaticism that Jánaček seems to be celebrating here (we haven’t read the Gogol, so there may have been an appreciation for the psychological and social cost of flinging and sacrificing one family member after another into the cauldron, but there certainly was no such countervailing weight in the music). As an exercise in pure orchestral brilliance and sonic impact, it’s a great piece, but as an artistic statement it left us a bit aghast.