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Czech Philharmonic • Jakub Hrůša
Introducing himself in Prague in Elgar’s Cello Concerto is 22-year-old British cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, who won the BBC Young Musician award in 2016. Recently, Jakub Hrůša has been discovering one important composition after another by Josef Suk. This time he chose Epilogue, a late, mature, and highly sophisticated work in praise of love.
Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85
Adagio, moderato (attacca)
Lento. Allegro molto
— Intermission —
Epilogue, a symphonic composition for orchestra, large and small mixed choirs, soprano, baritone, and bass, Op. 37 (40')
Mothers’ Song (Andante semplice)
From Eternity to Eternity (Allegro appassionato)
Mysterious Wonder and Restlessness (Adagio maestoso e mesto)
Pilgrim – Bringer of Consolation (Adagio molto tranquillo)
Sheku Kanneh-Mason cello
Alžběta Poláčková soprano
Jiří Brückler baritone
Jan Šťáva bass
Czech Philharmonic Choir of Brno
Petr Fiala choirmaster
Jakub Hrůša conductor
Rudolfinum — Dvořák Hall
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Customer Service of Czech Philharmonic
Tel.: +420 227 059 227
Customer Service office hours are on weekdays from 09:00 a.m. to 06:00 p.m.
When Josef Suk wrote his last composition Sousedská in 1935 for an outdoor ensemble from the village where he was born, he inscribed in the score the comment: “Exemplifying a composition that demands skill from neither the composer nor the players.” This is just one example of Suk’s peculiar sense of humour. At the same time, Suk was very much aware that the path to the highest artistic standards was difficult for both composers and performers. For example, in his Cello Concerto Edward Elgar created what is today one of one of the most famous works for that instrument, but the failed premiere obscured the concerto’s exceptional quality, and as a result the concerto did not become widely known until many years after the composer’s death.
Sheku Kanneh-Mason is already in great demand worldwide. He became a household name in 2018 after performing at the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex at Windsor Castle, a performance watched by nearly two billion people globally. Sheku initially garnered renown as the winner of the 2016 BBC Young Musician competition, the first Black musician to take the title. He has released two chart-topping albums on the Decca Classics label, Inspiration in 2018 and Elgar in 2020.
Sheku has made debuts with orchestras including the Seattle Symphony, the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra, the Atlanta Symphony, Japan Philharmonic, BBC Symphony, London Philharmonic, and Baltimore Symphony orchestras. Highlights this season include performances with the Cleveland Orchestra, Orchestre de Paris, New York Philharmonic, and London Philharmonic orchestras.
In recital, Sheku has performed at venues and festivals around the world from Wigmore Hall London to Carnegie Hall New York. Current and future seasons include appearances at the Barbican Hall London, Berliner Philharmonie, Concertgebouw Amsterdam, Suntory Hall Tokyo, and tours of North America, Italy, South Korea and China.
During the Covid-19 lockdown in spring 2020, Sheku and his siblings performed in twice-weekly livestreams from their family home in Nottingham to audiences of hundreds of thousands around the globe.
Sheku began learning the cello at the age of six and now continues his studies with Hannah Roberts at the Royal Academy of Music in London as a Bicentenary Fellow. Sheku was appointed a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) in the 2020 New Year’s Honours List. He plays a Matteo Goffriller cello from 1700 which is on indefinite loan to him.
Alžběta Poláčková is one of today’s most sought-after Czech sopranos. The steady, radiant tone of her instantly recognisable soprano voice lies comfortably on the border between the lyric and the dramatic.
As a opera soloist at the National Theatre in Prague as well as at theatres outside of Prague and on foreign stages, she has performed many title roles in operas in a broad range of styles. She has also presented herself to the public at several festivals in this country and abroad (including the Glyndebourne Opera Festival and Smetana’s Litomyšl) under the leadership of important conductors. In the role of Jitka she took part in a recording of Smetana’s opera Dalibor with the BBC Symphony Orchestra led by Jiří Bělohlávek. Alžběta has collaborated with many important stage directors including Robert Carsen, Alice Nellis, and Calixto Bieito. Alongside Rolando Villazón she took part in the filming of the documentary “Rolando meets Don Giovanni”.
She was born in Prague, where she completed secondary school and then studied at the Academy of Performing Arts in the studio of René Tuček. She is a laureate of several international singing competitions.
The baritone Jiří Brückler completed his vocal studies at the Prague Conservatoire under Jiří Kotouč and at the Academy of Performing Arts under Roman Janál. Already as a student he was making guest appearances at the State Opera in Prague. Victory at the Antonín Dvořák International Singing Competition in Karlovy Vary earned him the opportunity of long-term engagements with opera houses in his native Liberec, and in Pilsen and Brno, where he appeared at first in minor roles. Later he obtained a key engagement at Prague’s State Opera and National Theatre. He is gradually building up a repertoire of leading baritone roles in the worldwide repertoire – The Marriage of Figaro, The Magic Flute, The Barber of Seville, Cinderella, Faust, Romeo and Juliet, Eugene Onegin, The Jacobin, and Werther. He has been repeatedly honoured with nominations for Thalia Awards (for portrayals of Silvia in Pagliacci and of Rodrigo in Don Carlos). He also sings in operas by Janáček, Martinů, and Britten as well as new works by contemporary composers. Jiří Brückler has been honoured by invitations to collaborate with the world famous artists José Cura and Plácido Domingo.
Jan Štáva (*1988, Brno) has been an ensemble member of the Janáček Opera of the National Theatre in Brno since 2010. His repertoire there includes the roles of Baron Ochs (Der Rosenkavalier), Leporello (Don Giovanni), and Kecal (The Bartered Bride). In 2011 he made his debut at the National Theatre in Prague as Osmin (Die Entführung aus dem Serail). Since then, he has appeared there in a number of other roles such as Leporello (Don Giovanni) and Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro). The stages where he has appeared abroad include the Opéra de Paris, the opera house in Montpellier, the Angers-Nantes Opéra, and the Opéra National de Lorraine in Nancy. He has appeared in concert in collaborations with such orchestras as the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestre National de Lyon, and the Philharmonie Leipzig. His concert repertoire includes bass parts in works by J. S. Bach (St John Passion), J. Haydn (The Creation), W. A. Mozart, A. Dvořák, and G. Verdi (Requiem). This season, his appearances will include Papageno (The Magic Flute) at Brno’s National Theatre.
The Czech Philharmonic Choir of Brno stands at the pinnacle of the field of choral music at home and in a worldwide context. Conductors, orchestras, and soloists who have worked with the choir speak of it in superlatives. Above all, music critics acclaim its compact sound and broad range of expression. The choir appears at most of Europe’s prestigious festivals and at important concerts. Because of its excellence, each year it gives more than 90 concerts at home and abroad. It collaborates with the world’s top orchestras and conductors. It has an extensive discography and has earned a number of important awards: a 2007 Echo Klassik Award from Germany as ensemble of the year, a 2011 Tokusen Award from Japan for a recording of Dvořák’s Requiem, and a 2019 Classic Prague Award in the Vocal Performance category for its interpretation of Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass. The man behind the choir’s successes is its founder, choirmaster, and director Petr Fiala. The assistant choirmaster is Michael Dvořák.
Choirmaster Petr Fiala graduated from the Brno Conservatoire (piano, composition, conducting) and the Janáček Academy of Performing Arts in the studio of Jan Kapr. Besides teaching (he has been a professor at the Brno Conservatoire) and composing (he has written about 180 compositions), he has been devoting himself intensively to the work of a choirmaster and conductor for over 50 years. Petr Fiala is a laureate of many national and international competitions. He receives invitations to guest conduct Czech and foreign orchestras and choirs. In 1990 he founded the Czech Philharmonic Choir of Brno, and under his leadership it has earned itself a place among Europe’s best choral ensembles. In 2009 the Czech Episcopal Conference honoured Fiala with the Order of Sts. Cyril and Methodius for outstanding achievements as a conductor and composer. In 2013 he received the Brno City Prize in the field of music for his many years of artistic activity and for representing the city of Brno, and in 2016 he won the South Bohemia Region Prize for significant representation of the South Bohemia Region in the area of culture.
Jakub Hrůša is Chief Conductor of the Bamberg Symphony, and Principal Guest Conductor of the Czech Philharmonic and the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia.
He is a frequent guest with the world’s greatest orchestras, including the Vienna, Berlin, Munich and New York Philharmonics; Bavarian Radio, NHK, Chicago and Boston Symphonies; Leipzig Gewandhaus, Lucerne Festival, Royal Concertgebouw, Mahler Chamber and The Cleveland Orchestras; Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, and Tonhalle Orchester Zürich. He has led opera productions for the Vienna State Opera, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Opéra National de Paris, and Zurich Opera. He has also been a regular guest with Glyndebourne Festival and served as Music Director of Glyndebourne On Tour for three years.
His recording of Martinů and Bartók violin concertos with Bamberg Symphony was nominated for a Gramophone Award, and his Dvořák Violin Concerto CD with the Bavarian Radio Symphony was nominated for a Grammy Award. In 2020, his recordings of Dvořák and Martinů Piano Concertos with Bamberg Symphony, and Vanessa from Glyndebourne, won BBC Music Magazine Awards. Other releases include Dvořák and Brahms Symphonies with Bamberg Symphony, Suk’s Asrael with the Bavarian Radio Symphony, and Dvořák’s Requiem and Te Deum with the Czech Philharmonic.
Hrůša studied at Prague’s Academy of Performing Arts, where his teachers included Jiří Bělohlávek. He is President of the International Martinů Circle and The Dvořák Society. He was the inaugural recipient of the Sir Charles Mackerras Prize, and in 2020 was awarded the Antonín Dvořák Prize by the Czech Republic’s Academy of Classical Music, and – with Bamberg Symphony – the Bavarian State Prize for Music.
Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85
The English composer Edward Elgar grew up in the family of a church organist who owned a shop that sold sheet music and instruments. Little Edward began playing the piano at school, and he learned to play the organ by watching his father. He also borrowed a variety of instruments from the family shop and taught himself to play them without receiving any kind of instruction, so he soon mastered not only piano and organ, but also violin, viola, cello, and bassoon. He also began composing in a similar manner. At age 16 he became a free-lance musician, so he got experience mainly as an instrumentalist, church organist, and conductor. He mostly composed choral music, but he did not achieve true renown as a composer until he reached the age of 42, when he wrote his Enigma Variations, Op. 36. The great conductor Hans Richter held the work in high esteem and prepared and led its premiere. The idea of creating a set of variations with a secret, “encoded” theme is indicative of Elgar’s unusual imaginativeness, and as a self-taught composer, he was not under any restraints. The work is a covert tribute to the composer’s wife Alice and to the friends who supported Elgar during the years of uncertainty as he got his start as a composer.
Another of Elgar’s most important works is the Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85. Just choosing the cello as a solo instrument represents a great challenge for composers. Antonín Dvořák may have put it most succinctly, once warning his composition pupils that unlike the piano or violin, which are capable of carrying themselves in front of an orchestra as ideal solo instruments, the cello does not possess comparable tonal qualities: “it whines up high and mumbles down low”. It is possible that after Elgar’s Violin Concerto (1907–1910), he was taking on a challenge as Dvořák had done—dealing with a difficult compositional task. The solutions the composer selected definitely hint at this. Elgar chose an unusual four-movement layout that differs from most other concertos and is more typical of chamber music, and Elgar’s concerto has a great deal in common with the chamber music genre. The composer deals with the cello’s sonic limitations by using a very delicate instrumental touch, and the music itself is in fact very personal, even intimate in character. Elgar’s musical language achieves perfection in its musical expression of pain and sorrow. The melancholy phrases that descend ever more deeply into despair and gloom are the key to the interpreter’s grasp of the entire work. The concerto dates from a time of great resignation immediately after the First World War. The composer himself was battling illness, but above all he was affected by the decline of his beloved wife’s health. She managed to attend the concerto’s premiere, but she died the following year. Although the premiere on 27 October 1919 featured the superb cellist Felix Salmond, the London Symphony Orchestra, and Elgar conducting, the performance did not turn out well because of a lack of sufficient rehearsal time. The failed premiere proved to be too much for the concerto. Despite the efforts of many outstanding cellists, it was not until 1965 that the work gained wide recognition thanks to the legendary recording made by Jacqueline du Pré, who was 20 years old at the time.
Epilogue, a symphonic work for orchestra, large choir, small choir, soprano, baritone, and bass, Op. 37
The Czech composer, violinist, and teacher Josef Suk received his basic musical training from his father, a village teacher. The talented boy then got the best possible education at the Prague Conservatoire, where he first studied violin under Antonín Bennewitz, then composition under Karel Stecker and Antonín Dvořák. This is one reason for the unusual maturity of even Suk’s early works. The popular Serenade for Strings in E flat major, Op. 6 even captivated Johannes Brahms, who recommended the work to his publisher Fritz Simrock, although the composer was just 18 years old. As a recent conservatoire graduate, Suk also had other ambitious; immediately after finishing their studies, Suk and some classmates founded a string quartet, which soon earned recognition at home and around Europe. For a full four decades, Josef Suk played second violin in the Bohemian Quartet, performing on prestigious stages and spending a great deal of time on tour in trains and hotels. It is incredible that with such a busy schedule, he was able to focus on composing. His works were attracting the interest of performers and audiences. And Antonín Dvořák—Suk’s former teacher and now his father-in-law—was now satisfied. For example, Dvořák declared Suk’s incidental music to Zeyer’s play Radúz and Mahulena to be “music from heaven”.
Dvořák died in 1904, and a year later Suk’s wife, Dvořák’s daughter Otilie, died of a heart condition at the age of 27. The heartbroken composer later said: “This sad turn of events also brought a definitive turning point in my creative work, giving rise to a symphony bearing the name of the angel of death Asrael”. He dedicated the Asrael Symphony (1905–1906) “to the sublime memory of Dvořák and Otilie”. He gradually created an entire cycle of compositions dealing with serious questions of human existence. After Asrael he wrote Pohádka léta (A Summer’s Tale, 1907–1909) and Zrání (Ripening, 1912–1917), then in 1920 he began sketching the last part of the cycle: “The Harvest of Love”. Only after he had begun work on the composition did he give it the title Epilogue. Suk wrote the first two parts of the tetralogy for large orchestra only, then at the very end of Zrání he added a small women’s choir. In Epilogue he greatly strengthened the vocal component, adding a mixed choir and three solo voices – soprano, baritone, and bass. He selected the text from the Bible and from Julius Zeyer’s legend Under the Apple Tree. His work on the vast score was often interrupted because he assumed new duties in addition to playing in the quartet: teaching composition at the Prague Conservatoire and taking over as the director of the school. This is another reason why Epilogue was written during the long interval between 1920 and 1929 (with final revisions in 1933). The unique compositions flows without interruption, and it is divided internally into five parts (1. Footsteps, 2. Mothers’ Song, 3. From Eternity to Eternity, 4. Mysterious Wonder and Restlessness, 5. Pilgrim – The Bringer of Consolation). The movement titles do not appear in the score, but the composer revealed the titles and the thoughts behind them to his biographer J. M. Květ: “A man walking about the countryside is contemplating the mysteries of life and death until he is gripped by fear of death nearly to the point of despair. At the moment of greatest desperation, a recollection comes to him of a song sung by his mother, and in the beauty of maternal love he becomes aware of earthly love in its purest form. Deep in thought, he sees a vision of a flame rising from the earth, and in its radiance he envisions mankind’s eternal feelings and desires and the questions of life and death. Under the impression of this revelation, his heart is filled with mysterious wonder and restlessness. Redemption comes in the form of a Pilgrim, an embodiment of universal human desire, who rids men of the fear of death and fills them to their depths with the humble certainty that ‘the spirit of eternal love hovers over us’, and that in death are the seeds of new life.”
In reference to Suk’s humorous comment quoted above, it should be added that unlike Sousedská, his Epilogue definitely requires skill from its performers. At the work’s premiere on 20 December 1933 in Smetana Hall at the Municipal House in Prague, joining with three soloists and three Prague choirs were the Czech Philharmonic augmented by additional players and the conductor Václav Talich, to whom the composer dedicated the work. The President of Czechoslovakia T. G. Masaryk was among those present at the successful premiere.