The Philharmonia’s concert with its former principal guest conductor was Jakub Hrůša’s first appearance in London since he was confirmed last October as the Royal Opera’s next music director. Appropriately there was a theatrical flavour to much of the programme as originally announced, and a distinctly operatic one to the final item, which was to have been the last scene of Strauss’s Salome, preceded by the Dance of the Seven Veils. On the morning of the concert, though, it was announced that the soprano Jennifer Davis, who was to have sung the Salome extract, had been taken ill and the programme rejigged; the dance was retained but the final scene was replaced with more Strauss, his symphonic poem Don Juan.
What was now a purely orchestral concert began rather tepidly, with an uninvolving performance of Dvořák’s The Golden Spinning Wheel; it was superbly played – the Philharmonia brass in particular were on fine form throughout the evening – but rather short on compelling drama. To a certain extent that’s a problem with the work itself, which, for all its imaginatively beautiful moments, lacks the narrative intensity of some of Dvořák’s other symphonic poems, but here also seemed to be a product of Hrůša’s approach, which sometimes felt a little too bland and genteel.
There were more of the same good manners in Don Juan too – world-class orchestral playing but not too much in the way of edge-of-the-seat excitement. Things however changed utterly in the final two items in the concert. The Dance of the Seven Veils, louche and almost casually brutal, made an unexpectedly apt prelude to a performance of Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin (the suite rather than the complete ballet), which was totally compelling. Every orchestral detail was picked out with almost physical vividness, whether it was the sleazy clarinet solos, the sardonic trombones or the manic final chase.