Saturday 24 October 2015

Fabulous Fučik

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?


David Damant said...

The Austrian-Hungarian ( K & K, not Austrian) Empire's battleships did have a role in 1914, albeit a minor one. When planning the dispositions of battleships before the war, the Brits - and the French - had to take account of them. The Dual Monarchy stemmed from 1867 when the Hungarians threw their collective rattles out of their prams, and insisted that the Hapsburg Empire be divided. But the military and naval efforts remained a joint enterprise

Geo. said...

If the entry is accurate, I saw that DH opted for the trendy order now of Andante-Scherzo for Mahler 6, contrary to your preference and mine. Sir Mark Elder did the same in his recent Halle performance, although Andris Nelsons bucked the trend at the Proms this summer. I think that we are stuck with Andante-Scherzo for the duration, even though the symphony still works effectively either way, because the ending is the same.

I did get around to reading your chat with Mark Wigglesworth from TAD's page. Good stuff, even if I'm still of the mind that Testimony is basically a literary fake that struck a politically correct chord with a certain mindset, and thus cannot be relied upon. The fact that Stalin's regime and the USSR were monstrous doesn't justify inventing historical fictions out of whole cloth (same principle applies to Saddam Hussein and WMD's). I'm glad to read that Wigglesworth and ENO have gotten off to such a strong musical start, although the recent new production of La boheme has gotten mixed reviews, to put it mildly (not helped, apparently, by conductor Xian Zhang).

No Fucik on the radar here (heaven knows what David Robertson would make of his name if he were to dare program something like JF's "Entry of the Gladiators" in one of his "Music You Know" programs, as DR can be mildly scatological/double-entendrish in his audience chats when he wants to be), although this weekend, we get the first SLSO performances of Carl Nielsen 3, with John Storgards at the helm. I heard the dress rehearsal yesterday, and I think the audience is in for a treat tonight, that is, those who bother to show up. I'm afraid that the crowd will be small, even though there's Beethoven (Egmont overture) and the Schumann piano concerto in the 1st half, with Lars Vogt as the guest soloist.

David said...

Sir David, thanks for the englightenment. Duly adjusted to 'Austro-Hungarian Empire'.

Geo., can't you access the slot on the BBC iPlayer over there? Andrew wanted to discuss the middie-movements-order of Mahler 6 at some length, so you'll hear the debate there (he's prepared to be persuaded by Andante first, Sarah prefers it, I remain more or less obdurate).

I don't quite agree about Testimony. I prefer MW's claim that is 'true in essence', because nothing there isn't backed up by his or my experience of the music. 'Politically coreect' is a phrase that always worries me, as it did in the context of the Stephen Kovacevich interview, where I cut out his extension of what he thought he meant by it because it didn't look good to me.

'Fucik' of course, because of the 'Foo', sounds fine when spoken. Those who pass on Nielsen 3 don't know what they're missing. At least the Nielsen six symphonies had some success in New York, though Alan Gilbert's not my ideal in such explosive music.

Jan Kucera said...

'Fučik probably has the distinction of being the most-played Czech composer ever through his "Grande Marche Chromatique" Entry of the Gladiators'.

I believe the most played Czech composer must be Jaromír Vejvoda with his polka "Škoda lásky" (known as "Roll out the barrel..." in UK and "Rosamunde" in Germany).

To my knowledge, Vaclav Neumann gave a special concert of all this music a long time
ago (1970); he also had put Fučik on the program of the Silvester Concert of the
Czech Philharmonic in 1992.

Just two links:

I did not know you were also interested in that kind of music...

David said...

Zaperdidix, Jan! It takes a Czech to nose out information like that. I guess 'Roll out the barrel' ('zing, boom, tarrarel') probably HAS been heard more often round the world than 'Entry of the Gladiators', though it must be a fairly close-run thing. Thanks for even more important enlightenment.

As for liking 'that kind of music', if it was good enough for Brahms... I adore even more French light music, Delbes and Chabrier above all.

David Damant said...

Mr Nice is interested in and knows about all kinds of music, from Wagner ( O dear...) to the jolly stuff. The same strength was seen in the late beloved Charles Mackerras - his amazing breadth of competence with the baton.

Doesn't " Foochik" get round the problem?

David said...

The 'evil one', as you call him, wrote light music too. Think of the Mastersingers' 'Dance of the Apprentices', and indeed the overture to Das Liebesverbot, the whole of which I'm looking forward to experiencing live later.

As for being compared in any way to my great hero and, in the sense that interviews with him were like tutorials, late lamented master. you flatter me overmuch. But, yes, I love G&S and Janacek equally too.

Jan Kucera said...

One more.

Miramare is a little castle at the coast of the Adriatic, near Trieste. It used to be a part of the Austrian monarchy and Maxmilian I, the Habsburg archduke lived there before he left for Mexico to become Emperor there. It is a beautiful place, not unknown to the public in the then monarchy (something like the Claremont House in Surrey) and it was not improper for a 'Kapellmeister' to call his piece after a place like this.

The tale goes further: The archduke was accompanied a.o. by a 'ceremonial' (military) band with a great deal of Czech musicians - probably many whom Fučík in his positions in Croatia and Bosnia must have known in person - who subsequently spread all over South America (and influenced popular music there)...

(The evidence: I spent several weeks of my life at the ICTP in Trieste and used to walk through the Miramare Gardens at least twice a day. I read about the aforementioned influence when I was trying to learn something abou the history of Latin-American dancing...)

David said...

I know Miramare: another Jan (Morris) inspired us to go to Trieste, which we adored, and we took the funicular up to the high path and walked along, then down to Miramare where there was only time to stroll around the gardens before heading back along the sea front. A magical place, and the little station we passed is a gem.

Your insight is valuable, but I was actually wondering what the programme behind the Overture's multiple moods might be.

Susan Scheid said...

David: Following on Geo's comment, I meant to send on to you an interview with David Fanning,here. In the interview, he says of Testimony: "Aargh! So long as we keep calling Testimony ‘the Solomon Volkov book’, I don’t have a problem. The problem comes with quoting from it as though it actually contains Shostakovich’s memoirs. Large parts most likely are that. But Volkov has never satisfactorily explained the existence of those pages – the only ones authenticated by the composer’s signature – that are more or less word-for-word reproductions of articles previously published under Shostakovich’s name over a large number of years. Since those pages can hardly be ‘The memoirs of Dmitry Shostakovich as related to and edited by Solomon Volkov’, the authenticity of the rest is cast in doubt. The problem could probably yet be resolved by authentication of the shorthand notes from which Volkov says he made the typescript. But his claimed inability to produce them leaves little hope of that."

The Fučík music sounds quite jolly, and I'm curious to know what particularly inspired Neeme Järvi to make the recording. Järvi as the New Year's Day master is a terrific idea. I'll never forget seeing him conduct with the Estonian National Symphony and Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir a couple years ago. He had such rapport with the listeners (of course a whole lot of Estonians were in the mix). I remember two things particularly: some folks clapped after a movement of Sibelius's 5th. He turned sideways--you could see the twinkle in his eye and the smile on his face--and put a finger to his lips as a cue. At the close, there was a woman in a knit bobble hat standing at the edge of the balcony jumping up and down, waving her arms, shouting the piece she hoped he'd encore. He called out back to her and may well have performed the piece she wanted, though I couldn't hear the words, so can't say for sure. (The encore he performed was Andante Festivo.)

John Gardiner said...

David, no doubt you'll have had, or be having the Järvi/Suisse Romande Offenbach disc? I think it an absolute joy, the best yet of the series of French light orchestral music (if Offenbach can count as French?) from these forces on Chandos. I've always liked the slightly roguish brio of the Karajan/BPO disc from the early '80s, but this has just as much brio, and is much wittier and in places more refined. Great fun - gaiety personified!

David said...

I knew there was something else French from Neeme, John, when I ordered up Chabrier and Suppe. His Suppe has almost the same charm and drive - magnificent segues in Poet and Peasant, some rarities too - but the Chabrier feels a bit reticent, with some odd tempo choices. Ansermet's Chabrier with that same Suisse Romande remains the one for me. I also remember being addicted to a French overtures LP from him as a teenager; wonder how Jarvi will shape up there in comparison. Very well indeed, from what you say. Well, I'll give it a try. I've been urging Chandos to let him follow in Ansermet's footsteps with the complete Delibes Sylvia and Coppelia: fingers crossed for those.