On consecutive nights, the Proms gave opportunities for two conductors central to London's musical life to showcase music from their home countries.
Valery Gergiev and Jiří Bělohlávek might be worlds apart in terms of temperament but as Principal Conductor and Chief Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra and BBC Symphony Orchestra respectively, they both play an invaluable role in maintaining London's colourful, cosmopolitan orchestral scene.
While Gergiev gave us a rare complete airing of Tchaikovsky's The Sleeping Beauty, Bělohlávek gave us a concert performance of Janáček's Osud, an opera whose unconventional plot and scenic demands have kept it on the edge of the repertoire, despite a score of searing intensity and great beauty.
With The Sleeping Beauty, the work's great popularity as a cornerstone of any ballet company's repertory has, ironically, meant that a certain amount of the score traditionally cut in performance is probably heard live less often than Osud, which was, after all, staged at Garsington in 2002. Full and uncut, Tchaikovsky's ballet lasts just short of three hours which, with just one interval, makes for quite a long evening. It's all credit to Gergiev and his players then that they managed to make the evening, for the most part, fly by with a performance at once powerful, dramatic, tender and humorous. Gergiev delivered the goods in the big numbers and it was the more symphonically conceived passages – particularly a wonderful performance of the 'Rose Adagio' from Act One – that were the most successful in the purified atmosphere of a concert performance.
Inevitably, perhaps, there were passages designed more with an eye to what was supposed to be going on on stage which had less of an impact. But while I'd worried that much of the third act's divertissement, with its series of characteristic dances, would drag in concert, the playing of the LSO – particularly the wind section – prevented this from being the case. The oboe, cor anglais and bassoon revelled brilliantly in their mewings as Puss in Boots and the White Cat, for example, and Red Riding Hood's confrontation with the wolf was dramatically portrayed. On the other hand, the neo-classicist divertissement in the second act, despite looking forward to Prokofiev and Stravinsky, failed to make a persuasive case for not being cut, not helped by performances that were not ideally tidy.
The playing of the LSO was, on the whole, excellent, distinguished by contributions from guest leader Andrew Haveron and heady, swirling cadenzas from harpist Bryn Lewis; Tim Hugh, however, was the pick of the crop with his heartbreaking rendition of the big cello solo in the Act Two 'Pas d'action'. There was some slightly scrappy ensemble and some moments, such as the Act Two 'Panorama', were not seamless enough. Occasional balancing issues – the high wind, in particular, failing to blend with the strings and general voicing of the wind band sometimes obscuring the melodic line – masked Tchaikovsky's miraculous orchestration but overall did little to detract from the hugely impressive dramatic sweep of Gergiev's impassioned conducting.
In Prom 47, the distinctly unoperatic realism and cinematic pace of Osud meant that its remarkably compressed three acts lasted little over seventy minutes. A complete performance of Dvořák's op.46 Slavonic Dances made up the first half and, despite spirited playing from the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Bělohlávek, had a distinctly perfunctory feel about them. While many of Dvořák's instrumental works are saturated with the music and rhythms of the composer's native Bohemia, their formal planning helps to sustain interest over longer time spans, something which for all their wealth of melody the Slavonic Dances fail to do over forty minutes.
The concert's main event, though, was a very different story. Despite a plot that's a convoluted mix of autobiography, realism and romanticism, Osud is a highly dramatic and terse work with a score of originality, economy and great beauty; it was a shame that only a disappointingly small audience were able to enjoy it. Probably influenced by Charpentier's Louise, Osud also looks forward to Strauss's Intermezzo in its autobiographical dimension – providing a highly telling summary of the different composers' characters in the process – and in its fluid pacing.
The first act, set in a spa resort, starts off with a certain pre-war jollity but as soon becomes the backdrop for the composer Živný's problematic relationship with Míla to be explored, the whole thing hindered by Míla's mother, who disapproves of her daughter's choice of a composer. The second act's chilling climax, where the now deranged mother throws herself with Míla off the balcony to their deaths also robs the final act of two of the main protagonists, yet another factor adding to the work's neglect in the opera house. The final act, set another few years down the line, is set in Živný's conservertoire class, as they discuss his still unfinished opera, to be premiered without a final act.
Bělohlávek had assembled a cast made up of Czech and home grown singers which gelled well. Led by Amanda Roocroft's lyrically impassioned Míla it also featured Rosalind Plowright in fine dramatic form as her wonderfully unhinged mother. Štefan Margita had some problems with intonation and strain as Živný but managed to communicate the role's visionary passion well, bringing nobility to the essentially self-centred character. Bělohlávek brought playing of real intensity from the BBC Symphony Orchestra, pacing the climaxes with an expert touch and bringing tenderness and passion to the many wonderful orchestral interludes. It also provided a showcase for the wonderful BBC Singers whose members took several of the smaller roles – of which there are many.
Although Osud is never likely to find its place in the repertory, this excellent concert performance gave us all a most welcome opportunity to hear just how much great music it contains: another enterprising and rewarding piece of programming from the Proms.
By Hugo Shirley