Czech NSO Reach Scotland to Perform Schubert, Beethoven, and Dvořák

23/04/2018

Schubert, Beethoven, Dvořák: Pavel Kolesnikov (piano), Czech National Symphony Orchestra / Ben Palmer (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 22.04.2018. (SRT)

SchubertSymphony No.8 ‘Unfinished’

BeethovenPiano Concerto No.4

DvořákSymphony No.7

I had not heard of the Czech National Symphony until they came to Edinburgh about eighteen months ago. Back then their playing impressed me, even if the variety of their programming did not. Today was a more wholly convincing success.

Broadly, they are a large orchestra with a chamber-like sonority, meaning that the sound has scale but also lots of internal clarity. The violins, in particular, sounded clipped and focused in a way that stood out in the drama, bringing eyebrow-raising accuracy to their lines. There is not a drop of gloop in the orchestra’s sound, something that is, perhaps, helped by their layout – basses in the middle with antiphonal violins – meaning that all of the sound is very focused. Sometimes that might have slightly curtailed the passion in Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’ Symphony: I would have preferred a deeper plunge into the dark at the start of the first movement’s development, for example. But such a taut musical argument carried its own benefits, and the sheer focus could be very exciting in itself, such as in the brooding drama of the first movement’s coda, or the focus of the second movement’s gentle march, a genuine con moto for once. Their British conductor, Ben Palmer, cut a strikingly tall figure on the podium, but his manner was unassuming, and he was not in the least bit ostentatious in his gestures. In short, I was convinced.

The precision that had been so striking in the Schubert also came in brilliantly useful during the finale of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, its bucolic bustle sounding as sharp and on-point as you will hear, helped with wonderfully sparky playing from Pavel Kolesnikov. Elsewhere in the concerto, however, the focus was decidedly softer for what is, surely, the gentlest of Beethoven’s mature orchestral works. It worked because it mostly served to act as a journey of convergence between two styles. At the start, for example, Kolesnikov’s playing was so bright and clean as to sound almost spotlit against the warm orchestral texture. However, as the first movement developed they seemed to move closer to one another, the orchestra hardening and Kolesnikov softening, until they sounded like two halves of the same whole by the end. The process was then reversed in the slow movement, with hard-edged strings being gradually brought to heel by the piano’s gentle pleadings. It is hard to know whether that was intentional or a consequence of not knowing the hall’s acoustic well, but I liked it nonetheless, and it made great artistic sense.

So did Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony, given a swirlingly dramatic reading in its outer movements, rapid in tempo, and perhaps a touch more convincing in the minor-key passages than in the major ones. The Scherzo was fleet-footed, and there was a persuasive bloom to the slow movement. Throughout, I really enjoyed the way the brass and winds could cut through the texture to lend some distinctive colour, and that also helped the sparkle of their (inevitable) encore, the ‘Dance of the Comedians’ from The Bartered Bride.

Simon Thompson

 For an earlier London review click here.

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