Brass and Strings Share the Honours in Czech Phil’s Thrilling Concert


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 Edinburgh International Festival 2014 (19) –  Smetana, Dvořák, Janáček: Bernarda Fink (mezzo), Czech Philharmonic Orchestra  / Jiří Bělohlávek (conductor) Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 23.8.2014 (SRT)

Smetana:               String Quartet No. 1 “From My Life” (arr. George Szell)
Dvořák:                 Biblical Songs
Janáček:                Sinfonietta

If it was the Czech Philharmonic’s strings that impressed me most in last night’s concert, then tonight it was (predictably) the bright-as-a-button sheen on the brass in Janáček’s Sinfonietta that really hit home.  That wasn’t just true in the outer fanfare movements, though the extra players at the back of the organ gallery did pack a real punch.  Throughout Janáček’s kaleidoscopic score there were umpteen gorgeous flecks of colour, be it in the street scene of the fourth movement or the crazy-mechanical-clock of the second. But the finest, I thought, was the intense climax of the third movement where spiralling strings and brass come together to thrilling effect.

 In total contrast to this, the gentle, pastoral world of Dvořák’s Biblical Songs benefited from refinement, elegance, and the dusky mezzo of Bernarda Fink.  In what sounded like expert Czech, Fink sang all ten songs with delicacy and understatement, and was all the more impressive in that she sang on with grace and serenity even while the fireworks for the end of the Military Tattoo went on (very audibly!) outside.

 The biggest revelation of the evening, though, came in Szell’s arrangement of Smetana’s first quartet.  What a brilliant job he made of it!  Unlike, say, Mahler’s arrangement of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden, this is far from a simple upscaling for string orchestra: instead, Szell integrates proper parts for the winds, brass and percussion, often to thrilling effect.  It sounds, to all intents and purposes, like the greatest symphony that Smetana never wrote and there are moments, particularly in the middle two movements, that come across as positively Tchaikovskian.  The second movement polka sounds as though it was lifted straight out of one of Smetana’s operas, while the love music of the third movement is meltingly beautiful, all the more so in retaining one passage for string quartet at the end of this movement.  The realisation of deafness in the finale is devastating, and the slicing down of the movement’s heroic main theme is made all the more tragic when it is played on a bigger scale.  Yes, you lose some of the intimacy, but the gains were so great that I think I’d now struggle to listen to the quartet version!  Again, those surging, passionate Czech strings bore the lion’s share of the honours for keeping the music propelling forward, and it was glorious to hear them playing with such bustling precision in their encore, the Bartered Bride overture.  And, of course, a Slavonic Dance to finish with.  These were two nights of brilliantly “national” music making, in every good sense of the word.

 The Edinburgh International Festival runs until Sunday 31st August in venues across the city.  For full details click here.


Simon Thompson

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