While Oxford cowered away from a miserable October day and evening, Prague has been enjoying an Indian Summer this week, and a little of that Czech sunshine somehow managed to filter itself our way across the continent and through the creaking doors of the Sheldonian in the shape of Dvorák's Cello Concerto and 8th Symphony, predominantly cheery works both.
Armenian cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan, once a protégé of Rostropovich, was in town. It's surprising how few cello concertos have been written: nothing from any of Mozart, Beethoven or Brahms, or, more recently, from Bartok or Stravinsky, and I expect Mr. Hakhnazaryan has played the piece in public dozens of times. We had to wait to hear from him, however, since Dvorák wrote an extended tutti with a distant, brooding motif from the clarinets that pops up again at the very end of the concerto, its quasi-sinister qualities only later recast as something more jaunty.
The second subject is that magical horn solo, here played super-smoothly, and then it's taken over by the clarinet and further extended by other woodwinds. The work is actually something of a benefit piece for the wind section, and in the Adagio it imitates the rustic sounds of perhaps the chaffinch or the nightingale (flute), marshy bullfrogs (bassoons) and doves (a pair of flutes in the lower register). The orchestra is fortunate in its principal flautist, (Tony Robb), and oboist (Joe Sanders), outstanding players both.
When he entered, Mr Hakhnazaryan showed us he was equipped with a dark, singing tone quality. His treatment of the opening three-note chords gave an immediate epic quality to the music, and later in the Adagio he established a subtle, almost politely conversational rapport, either in graceful arpeggios or a little later in a passionate song. There was never a trace of soloistic grandstanding here, just a close engagement with his instrument.
Before his Armenian folk tune encore, Mr Hakhnazaryan spoke of how the past week has been a tough one for
After the interval we had a short, ten-minute piece Into the Void by bassist/composer Richard English of Birmingham Conservatoire (Hannah Schneider conducting). This was surprisingly and attractively tonal in form, alternating slow pulses with presto or even faster passages. Was it just the astronomical association that put me in mind of Holst's Planets Suite, and specifically of its Uranus? We need to hear more from Mr English.
Dvorák's Symphony No. 8 got under way with a leisurely cello melody that bears, to my ear, a resemblance to the opening of Mendelssohn's 'Scottish' Symphony. In August 1889, just a month before he embarked on this 8th Symphony, Dvorák wrote: 'The melodies simply pour out of me', and the spring continued to gush during the next three months until the symphony was finished in that November; so much so that five or six clearly distinguishable themes appear in the first 16 pages of the score alone. I think there can be a danger that with such an abundance of melodies a work can just ramble along with little cohesion, but Marios Papadopoulos, as always a most sympathetic conductor to accompany a soloist, here exerts the discipline which a symphonic composition requires.
The second movement is a sort of Intermezzo, though not marked as such, a dreamy waltz to be danced by Cinderella and her Prince on the terrace in the minutes before midnight, and latterly little taps on the drum fall in unexpected places. Towards its end there were hints of the Sibelius symphonies to come, but as always Dvorák jibs at the chilly possibilities in front of him that became a signature mark of Sibelius, and prefers to return to something more folksy. In the Finale, the pair of trumpets gave the opening fanfare all they'd got, and later they were joined by the five horns in a harmonised version of it that anticipated the boisterous if abrupt finish.