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Concert Review

The Sound of Bohemia

Anima Eterna Brugge/Jos van Immerseel
Bruges, Concertgebouw, 13 March 2015

Jos van Immerseel and Anima Eterna Brugge have long since gone beyond exploring the Baroque and Classical eras. Their "historically aware" performances from the last fifteen years now range from Monteverdi to Gershwin. Based on the use and implementation of historically accurate instruments and performance techniques, as well as extensive and critical archival research, their projects have often warranted a fascinating, at times revelatory rediscovery of familiar scores. Their current "Sound of Bohemia" heard at a concert in Bruges focuses on the three most significant Czech composers – Smetana, Dvořák and Janáček – and covers a time span of roughly fifty years. All three are presented with one of their most popular works: The Moldau (1874), the Ninth Symphony "From the New World" (1893), and the Sinfonietta (1926).

The placement of the orchestra, as well as the forces employed, are remarkable. Not the large ensemble we take for granted with the conventional "modern" orchestras performing Smetana and Dvořák, but a slimmer group of some 55, with 32 strings (first violins divided left/right, and the four basses divided left/right as well). For Janáček's Sinfonietta the ensemble was augmented by a group of 11 trumpets and two tenor tubas taking place behind the orchestra, plus extra woodwinds. In this respect it was a shame that no information was provided in the program brochure (as is usually done in great detail in the booklets of the Anima Eterna CD's) about the origins of the instruments used for the concert. Nor was it made clear whether the same instruments were used for Smetana as for Janáček.

The sonority that van Immerseel obtained was fascinating. The transparency, as well as the particular sound of the old instruments allowed to appreciate phrases and details in the scores which often disappear. Moreover, it can only be repeated that Anima Eterna Brugge is a group of superb musicians and throughout the evening there were ravishing solos to enjoy. The flutes in particular, so important in all three scores, proved a constant delight.

Smetana's Moldau came out really well – and in effect sounding quite close to the historical recordings from Václav Talich with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. The horns added extra color to the hunting scene, the peasant wedding was slow yet gently accentuated, but real magic appeared with the muted strings and flute and clarinet figures in the moonlight scene. The harp, positioned in front of the orchestra, added even more enchantment, while the soft brass prepared the return of the main theme with rising expectation. The rapids, sounding very Lisztian here, opposing high flutes and percussion, were depicted in vivid colors, yet by contrast the final scene with the return of Vysehrad missed grandeur and eloquence.

The performance of Dvořák's Ninth was overall less convincing and the limitations of van Immerseel's approach, occasionally shining through in Smetana, became more of an issue. Meticulous care of instrumental color and orchestral balance, or scrupulous respect of dynamic nuances, are admirable but not sufficient to bring a score alive. Last year in this very same concert hall, the Budapest Festival Orchestra under Iván Fischer performing Dvořák's Ninth showed exactly what was missing: an imagination to read between the lines. As has been noticed in his previous readings of 19th century works, and arguably to his credit, van Immerseel is wary of so-called Romantic excesses, but here the strictly controlled dramatic expressivity leaves Dvořák's mixture of epic grandeur and nostalgia far too underexposed. In spite of vibrant orchestral playing (the horns, all six of them, sounding especially brilliant, as did the clarinets and flutes), tempo variations weren't always convincingly handled, resulting in lapses in tension and a loss of the long line in both the 1st and 2nd movements. The brisk opening of the Largo lacked mystery and although the cor anglais solo was admirable in itself, the overall impression was one of distant observation instead of heartfelt commitment. The Molto vivace bounced with plenty of rhythmic vivacity, although the middle section remained rather uneventful, while the final movement didn't quite lead to the grand climax either – for sure that's exactly what van Immerseel wanted. It somehow reminded of Václav Talich when he admitted near the end of his career that he would prefer to conduct Dvořák's symphony "without all the Romantic silt" – but it's doubtful he had this in mind.

Janáček's Sinfonietta quite naturally made a strong impression with its massed, piercing brass – the extra gutsy sound here would have delighted the composer – and visceral blends of timbres, but didn't avoid problems of orchestral balance and precision in the wildest climaxes (this concert was being recorded for radio broadcast and I assume CD release, so it will be interesting to hear how they dealt with them). Some passages garnered plenty of excitement though. The evolving Moderato was deftly conducted with fine brass and muted strings, while the tempo changes in the short Allegretto (4th movement) carried more convincing here. The finale however lacked the mounting tension and drive of the best versions, with the return of the initial fanfares sounding more accidental rather than the ineluctable conclusion of a dramatic force that had been building up in the preceding twenty minutes.

"The Sound of Bohemia" offers plenty of food for thought. As we know nothing is taken for granted by Jos van Immerseel and Anima Eterna Brugge, and that's a good starting point for rediscovery and reconsideration, even if not everything falls into place yet. Fascinating work, but nonetheless, for my money, work in progress.

Copyright © 2015, Marc Haegeman