Scottish Chamber Orchestra/Jakub Hrůša

Dvořák, Czech suite; Mozart, Piano Concerto no. 20, K466; Beethoven, Symphony no. 2

11 May 2012 4 stars

Jakob Hrusa

Most of the buzz about Gramophone Magazine's 'ten conductors on the verge of greatness', published this time last year, seems to have been generated by Gramophone Magazine. Maybe that's because, being behind a paywall, their content doesn't get linked to – and links are what make internet buzzing happen.
Howbeit, Jakub Hrůša was one of those named (as was SCO chief conductor Robin Ticciati), and it is fair to say that his well-attended and warmly-received Edinburgh debût went a long way towards confirming Gramophone's judgement. One might object to their choice of words, their arbitrary methodology, the lack of ethnic or even gender diversity, and so on. But there's nothing like a few measures of lively and vivid sonority to banish such ruminations and fix one's attention.

There was more to this interpretation than the natural affinity a fellow-countryman might be expected to bring: from the outset Hrůša had the orchestra generating a tremendously rich and sonorous, but also skilfully sculpted sound. (At one point I found myself re-counting the 'cellos to make sure that there really were only four.) His left hand was clearly doing some serious work as his gestures repeatedly drew out perfectly articulated melodic contributions from the winds. His tempos were spot-on, as was his phrasing and overall shaping.  

Turning to the Mozart, it was good to see Jonathan Biss in the soloist's seat. When he appeared at the Edinburgh Festival a year or two ago, there were several points on which the Herald's respected critic Michael Tumelty and I differed, but one thing we agreed about is that Mr Biss can play Mozart. It isn't easy to explain what that means: immediately one calls to mind Sviatoslav Richter's comment about Mozart (after Schnabel, I believe), to the effect that it is too easy for children to play, and too difficult for artists. Being a good Mozartian is about what's not there more than it is about what is; it's about discretion and restraint, especially in front of a full-scale modern concert grand piano. Holding back from the full dynamic range such instruments afford is an art in itself. But it is also about understanding Mozart's extraordinary rapport with the human voice, making the instrument in question sing.

I have a hunch that the first movement cadenza was pushing it a bit, not so much with border transrgessions, taking in notes that weren't on a Mozartian instrument, but with dense high treble-end textures that you don' t hear in authentic Mozart. That's a trivial point. More striking was the comparison with Imogen Cooper's performance of the same concerto with the RSNO a year or two ago. Back then I was remarking on the visible rapport between soloist and orchestra, and in the interim the sheer practicality of Mozart's scoring has become apparent. I have to give David Gardiner's programme note credit here: he notes that the concerto was finished the day before the performance, and copyists were working on parts on the afternoon before the performance. What you need, in those circumstances, is the maximum attention paid to cuing, letting the individual musicians know how they fit into the big picture in the absence – one assumes – of a conductor. While that kind of rapport wasn't overtly evident in this performance, the remarkable lyric intensity created between soloist and ensemble during the central part of the second movement made it abundantly plain that these recent acquaintances were getting along fine.

Having heard two radically different approaches to Beethoven's symphonies with the SCO in recent weeks, it was fascinating to listen to another, which was something of a hybrid. In his reading of the second symphony Hrůša evidently relishes the large sound in the manner of Joseph Swensen, but he also adopted the natural brass and timpani (now credited as such in the programme) favoured by Robin Ticciati. The result was a broad and ebullient reading that effectively captured the magic of this often-overlooked gem. On a critical note, his appetite for a large sound sometimes leads Hrůša to muddied textures – something particularly noted in the finale of the Mozart – but overall this was an impressive debût.

By Peter Cudmore



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