IN: Reviews

Superlatives Abound at BSO


Jakub Hrůša conducts (Winslow Townson photo)

Two guests visiting from the Czech Republic shone last night in Symphony Hall: Jakub Hrůša, conductor, and Lukás Vondráček, piano, the latter making his BSO debut. In Rachmaninoff’s beloved Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Opus 18, the two collaborated with remarkably simpatico synergy as an absolutely extraordinary traversal unfolded.

The original repertoire planned for this concert was to have included Leos Janácčk’s superb Glagolitic Mass, but because of fear of possible Covid transmittal, we heard non-choral Janáček (Jealousy), Rachmaninoff, and Dvořák’s Symphony No. 6 in D Major, Opus 60 instead. It repeats Friday 2/4 and Saturday, 2/5. For reasons enumerated below, I’d attend or listen to the Saturday broadcast.

It’s always a good sign when the BSO players applaud a soloist before a single note is played. Admiration from this band of virtuosos, who have heard and seen almost everyone of performance import, is surely not easy won, especially when the soloist is making a first appearance with them. The warmth shown by the players as Vondráček arrived on-stage felt sincere and immediate.

The series of portentous opening chords from the solo piano, beginning pp and slowly rising in volume to ff, can tell an informed listener much about the player and what kind of interpretation may lie ahead. One hears this in the famous Rachmaninoff-Stokowski-Philadelphia recording from September 27, 1929 [HERE], though rumors suggest that the composer and Stoki were not always of one mind. Thankfully last night’s player and conductor achieved total agreement. It was the most beautifully integrated excursion of this passionate music that I have experienced. Over and over again one marveled at the superb control of the orchestra that Hruša exhibited, and, importantly, the players’ willingness to do what he so clearly showed. Vondráček’s playing was admirable from every angle, his soft playing a particular strength, variegated and sensitive, taking more time now and then than one might have thought possible, judiciously overlaying a remarkably thoughtful and appropriate rubato, yet never straying into anything remotely treacly or sticky-sweet. His playing throughout ideally amalgamated fire and mist. Indeed, those opening chords did foretell an extraordinary interpretation.

There were so many moments of such shiver-inducing gorgeousness and overt virtuosity that it’s difficult not to overstate:

  • the unanimity of purpose among the strings, from top to bottom, with a correspondingly wonderful richness of tone – melted dark chocolate comes to mind for a description of the opening movement’s dark-hued and deeply romantic opening theme
  • the turn-on-a-dime control of dynamics within the orchestra, so carefully planned by Hruša. Volcanic eruptions of sound and quickened tempi leapt up out of the rich and glowing magma flow, then returned to the warm undertow below.
  • the perfection of phrasing and tone that Associate Principals Elizabeth Klein, flute, and Richard Sebring, French horn brought to their second movement solos.
  • the utter mastery of pianist Lukás Vondráček, whose traversal of this treacherously difficult score was always clear, heartfelt, and totally controlled, yet pliable and responsive to every fiery and nostalgic emotion the music inhabited.

I urge every reader who knows this music, and those who don’t, to hear this performance.

Hrůša began his concert with a little-known work by Leoš Janáček which began its concert life as a preliminary study to the composer’s 1916 opera Jenufa. In 1917 he recast “Prelude to Jenufa” as an independent work: Jealousy. Concise, brilliant, and rife with all of this unique composer’s stylistic traits, it provided an interesting, well-played if not particularly riveting opening.

Lukáš Vondráček, pianist (Winslow Townson photo)

Dvořák’s Symphony No. 6 in D Major, Opus 60 (1880) is the first of a string of four superb symphonies by this composer and is, inexplicably, rarely heard. It abounds with irresistible melody, robust energy, snapping rhythms, especially in its earthy third movement Scherzo (Furiant), and many moments of supremely beautiful melody, all brilliantly scored by this gifted master of orchestration. My introduction to this music came many years ago, courtesy of Erich Leinsdorf. He was evidently an enthusiastic advocate for this symphony and made a brilliant recording of it on February 24, 1946 with the Cleveland Orchestra, of which he was then Music Director. He later programmed it here with the BSO early in his Music Directorship in an astonishingly energetic and well-played concert broadcast on Saturday, November 16, 1963, an off-air recording of which I am fortunate to own courtesy of my friend and BSO maven David Callahan. Hrůša’s take last night, while not quite as incisive and blisteringly hot in its final moments as 1946 and 1963 Leinsdorf*, nonetheless hit all the high spots with idiomatic Czech elan and made for a brilliant close of a very special evening at Symphony Hall.

I should mention that the Hall was, sadly, only partially full last night, perhaps due to weather, or Covid worries, or the fact that the originally planned program had changed. Yet, those in the Hall seemed remarkably attentive, falling into utter and complete silence before each piece, and showing full appreciation at their conclusions. The Dvořák and Rachmaninoff both occasioned well-deserved standing ovations and multitudinous bravos.

*Leinsdorf later made a recording for RCA of this music on December 19 and 22, 1967, but it is, atypically, a curiously flat and uninvolved performance. One wonders why…

John W. Ehrlich is music director of Spectrum Singers, which he founded 40 years ago. He has been a singer and conductor in the Boston area for more than 47 years.


7 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. It’s good to see that the Dvořák Sixth is turning up occasionally on BSO programs. I think I’ve heard it at least three times.Tovey’s essay on this brilliant, inventive piece is worth reading.

    As for Leinsdorf’s performance that Mr. Ehrlich mentions, I have also heard a tape of the concert, which received an enthusiastic audience response, and the RCA recording, which was good but a little disappointing. I suppose the atmosphere of a recording session can stifle the spirit of a performance, which is why I’m happy that the BSO and other orchestras are releasing recordings of “live” concerts. (Or perhaps the players were not in the mood for making a recording three days before Christmas, and in the middle of their POPS season.) By the way, I think a slip of the fingers caused in incorrect date in Mt. Ehrlich’s last sentence. The BSO recording must have been made in 1967, not in 1987.

    Comment by George Hungerford — February 5, 2022 at 8:19 am

  2. Right you are, Mr. Hungerford – I did indeed mean to type 1967. Thanks for the catch.
    While I’m “correcting,” I neglected to write that in the midst of his ovation Lukás Vondráček signaled an encore – Robert Schumann’s Traumerei – which certainly tempered the audience’s zeal, if only for a moment. Coming as it did after the rhapsodic Rachmaninoff, it provided a welcome and calming contrast. This, and what had proceeded, made me want to hear more of this clearly gifted artist.

    Comment by John — February 5, 2022 at 12:38 pm

  3. I believe that 1967 was before the onset of Christmas at Pops (now Holiday at Pops). At that time, Arthur Fiedler’s December was taken up by conducting every performance of the Boston Ballet’s Nutcracker.

    Comment by John J Crimlisk — February 5, 2022 at 4:30 pm

  4. The fine Globe critic George Gelles ended his harsh Nov ’67 review (Haydn 79, Prokofiev PC 4 w/ JBrowning) thus:

    “Dvořák’s Sixth Symphony in D Major closed Friday afternoon’s concert. Among the wind players, to whom the work gives lots to do, only solo hornist James Stagliano played really beautifully. Otherwise the reading was competent, well-mannered, and loud.”

    Yes, Pops Christmas Party was several years later, early 1970s; Brian B would have details.

    Comment by David R Moran — February 5, 2022 at 7:56 pm

  5. Let’s mention that Lukas Vondracek is an Artist Diploma graduate of NEC.

    Comment by Raro — February 5, 2022 at 9:51 pm

  6. I can confirm Mr. Hungerford’s assessment of the Leinsdorf 1967 RCA recording as “good but a little disappointing”. The disc I heard was marred by the distortion oh so common of those “Dynagroove”
    LPs, and there are a few possible explanations for the disappointment. First, the Symphony was crammed into a recording schedule that completed a Beethoven Piano Concerto cycle (#1 and #2 with Arthur Rubinstein) and a Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with a hot-shot soloist barely out of his teens by the name of Itzhak Perlman. The 6 days of sessions also produced a Mozart Linz Symphony, the Dvorak Romance (filler for the Tchaikovsky) 2 Slovanic Dances (filler for the Dvorak Symphony), Wagner’s Preludes to Tannhauser and Tristan, and some of the Beethoven 5th. Looking at the session logs, the Dvorak Symphony was given little more than a read through. There was a full three weeks from their final performance in New York and when the tape machines rolled.
    Also worth contemplating is that December 1967 was the month that the BSO informed Leinsdorf that they were not going to renew his contract as Music Director after 1969.
    Regarding Fiedler’s Nutcracker, the Pops made an LP’s worth of the ballet in 1956, before complete ballet recordings were common. The stereo LP is rather rare, but tremendous fun. The tempos are such that one could not conceive the Balanchine choreography being used.

    Comment by Brian Bell — February 6, 2022 at 10:43 am

  7. As a member of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, I was supposed to sing the Glagolitic Mass, but instead was in the audience last night, the Saturday night end-of-run. Agree with you, John, it was a most beautiful and special evening, with gorgeous playing by all on stage. And Jacub Hruša! I want to sing with him! Fortunately, we hear that the Mass is not canceled; it’s postponed until the Maestro’s calendar can match up with the BSO’s. (And Winslow Townson’s photo of Hruša in midair certainly catches his spirit!)

    Comment by Karen Wilcox — February 6, 2022 at 3:43 pm

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