Wednesday 22 August 2018

EIF 2018 - Dvorak's Requiem at the Usher Hall, or A Festival Special

When the programme was announced back in March this rarity was one of the more interesting items in an Usher Hall line up which as in recent years continues to play it fairly safe. It proved to be one of the highlights of the Festival so far.

I'd previously heard Dvorak's St Ludmila at the Festival back in 2002 and that had proved to be an unfairly neglected work, though I think it has only reappeared in the UK once since. I don't think the Requiem is quite such a strong piece, it is, apart from anything else, a little in Verdi's shadow. But there are lots of strong elements to it, and Jakub Hrusa led his forces expertly to make the best possible case for it.

The demands placed on chorus and soloists especially are heavy. There are elaborate choral fugues, such as the setting of Quam olim Abrahae, requiring both weight and precision from the different sections, balanced against a number of points of unaccompanied or near unaccompanied singing, and plenty of contrast in dynamics. I've sometimes felt in recent years that the Festival Chorus occasionally just falls slightly short on weight and precision - so it was pleasing to say that in this case they rose to the challenges magnificently, making an electric contribution to the evening.

The four soloists were made up of a Slovakian (soprano Eva Hornyakova) and three Czechs - alto Vaclava Krejci Houskova, tenor Pavel Cernoch, and bass Jan Martinik. They all sang with great commitment and belief in the piece. Cernoch had, to my ear, the most beautiful sound with a lovely heroic timbre. Occasionally there were some slight moments of strain in other members of the quartet but this was balanced by their feeling for the drama and the many sections of powerful and beautiful singing. Their voices also harmonised very well together - both in pairs and in quartet - something that isn't always the case in performances of this kind - and again helped to give feeling and beauty particularly to some of the more intimate sections of the work - for example the Recordare.

The singers were supported by the excellent orchestral unit of the Bamberger Symphoniker who negotiated the dynamic contrasts and the many solo contributions with ease. My ear was especially caught by the contributions of the brass section where Dvorak it seems to me writes with really interesting variety - from fanfare like chipping in to baleful Wagnerian weight.

The whole performance was superbly guided by Jakub Hrusa who impressed me earlier this summer when he conducted Vanessa at Glyndebourne. He showed again here a real feeling for drama, never losing the sense of forward momentum in a piece which, in other hands I imagine could flag. But he also knew when to slow and savour a moment of beauty, without losing the shape of the whole. He also showed great sensitivity in balancing the different forces against each other. Our opera houses in particular should be rushing to engage him.

Altogether this was a really first class evening, showcasing one of the things a Festival like Edinburgh should always be doing - providing opportunities to hear large scale works which otherwise don't get outings.

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