Saturday, 24 October 2015
Picture if you will the delightful Sarah Walker - the BBC Radio 3 presenter, not the veteran singer - doing a drum majorette routine in the studio with an invisible baton while the liveliest of marches goes out on air. I think - I hope - we all got infected by the glittering spirit of Julius Fučík (1872-1916) as conducted, con molto amore as is so obvious, by Neeme Järvi, and played so brilliantly by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra on Chandos.
The disc was one of my two picks for an orchestral new releases stretch on last Saturday's CD Review (still available to listen to on the BBC iPlayer for another couple of weeks; our slot is around the 1.16 mark, though I also very much liked what I heard of Hannah French's Building a Library on Haydn's Trumpet Concerto as we waited to go live on air). The other choice was a Mahler 6 from Daniel Harding, not a conductor I've found more than middle-of-the-road before, but with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra he's fired up and has a lot to say. And the cover gimmick of heartbeat ECG and hammerblow frequency is a good one.
Sarah chose the two Brahms Piano Concertos from Barenboim and Dudamel on DG, a recording which I found almost impossible to listen to in its ponderousness after the flights of Robin Ticciati in the First Symphony and now, on CD, Stephen Kovacevich's versions with Colin Davis when he was still plain Bishop. Sarah's other disc, the Schoenberg arrangement of Brahms's G minor Piano Quartet and his Accompaniment to a Film Scene, with Marc Albrecht conducting the Netherlands Philharmonic, was much more to my taste, and the Accompaniment came in useful when I was illustrating Shostakovich's original first interlude in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk to my Opera in Depth students - it's just possible he knew Schoenberg's work in 1931.
The Fučík selection - I know, how easily the finger goes on the keyboard from c straight to k - really is quite a sequence, with excellent notes to match by Nigel Simeone (though even he can't unearth all the programmes - what, for instance, are the Marinarella and Miramare Overtures, miniature tone poems, all about?) It's a real New Year's Day concert of overtures, marches and polkas with plenty of novelties like whistling, anvils and farting bassoon. Andrew McGregor did a spot check on that venerable Viennese institutions and found that Fučík, Prague-born son of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and very much part of the K&K set-up, had never featured.
He had an interesting peripatetic life as bassoonist and military bandmaster, working in two Prague theatres as well as in Sisak (in Croatia), Sarajevo, Budapest and Berlin. I find it piquant that the most conventional of the marches, Under the Admiral's Flag, was played at Trieste's naval yard in 1911, with Archduke Franz Ferdinand present, for the launch of the Dreadnought battleship Viribus unitis (the Austrian navy not being something that figures much, for obvious reasons).
Certainly the waltzes are up there with Josef Strauss's for sheen and beauty, if perhaps not quite the same degree of memorability. The lessons of Dvořák, Fučík's most famous mentor, shine in the woodwind writing both there and in the Marinarella Overture, where Rusalka seems to glide out of the water. But if we're talking about tunefulness, Fučik probably has the distinction of being the most-played Czech composer ever through his 'Grande Marche Chromatique' Entry of the Gladiators; intriguing to learn that it was partly written to serve the new chromatic possibilities in valved brass instruments. It's a proper riot in the full-orchestral garb on the CD; the little harmonic sideslip in the trio tune is typical.
Fučík can't resist giving little kicks to his melodies, whether in syncopation, harmony or orchestration. Uncle Teddy is such fun, with Bohemian thirds and sixths to boot, and I love the eastern European otherness of Hercegovac; but undoubtedly the one on my brain, which I partly got played on the show, is the cheerful-making Florentiner March, supposedly mimicking the chatter of an Italian girl to which her man - an Austrian officer - grunts back 'Jawohl' on two low notes. The polkas are fine, too, especially The Old Grumbler with the bassoon (the RSNO's David Hubbard, excellent) getting under the dance's feet as well as joining it. So is it going to take a Czech conductor of high status to appear in Vienna on January 1 and get these pieces included? And if that doesn't happen, wouldn't Neeme make a marvellous New Year's Day master?