Czech National Symphony Orchestra Proves Capable in Schubert, Beethoven and Dvořák

17/04/2018

Schubert, Beethoven and Dvořák: Pavel Kolesnikov (piano), Czech National Symphony Orchestra / Ben Palmer (conductor), Cadogan Hall, London, 16.4.2018. (AS)

Schubert – Symphony No.8 in B minor, D759, ‘Unfinished’

Beethoven – Piano Concerto No.4 in G, Op.58

Dvořák – Symphony No.7 in D minor, B141

This concert was to have been originally conducted by Petr Altrichter, and the prospect of hearing Dvořák performed by an all Czech team was an appealing one. But for some reason Altrichter withdrew and his place was taken by the English conductor Ben Palmer, who is artistic director of the Covent Garden Sinfonia and Chief Conductor of the Deutsche Philharmonie Merck. Palmer specialises in conducting films live to screen, and this year he has directed the Czech National Symphony Orchestra in a number of such events, some of them taking place in English provincial centres immediately before this concert. So, his additional engagement on this occasion made perfect sense.

The Czech National Symphony Orchestra is celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary this year. It plays a wide range of music from conventional classical repertoire to film scores, jazz and musicals. On this evidence it is a very capable body, with some particularly fine woodwind players and a solid brass section. It would be unfair to pass ultimate judgement on the tonal quality of the strings, since all of its sections were necessarily reduced in numbers to fit into the Cadogan Hall’s restricted platform space. But the playing was technically very good.

The young Russian pianist Pavel Kolesnikov, now based in London, is rapidly making his way to the top of his profession, and his performance of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto told us exactly why this is so. His technique is immaculate, and he produces a beautiful, singing tone quality. There is an aristocratic, highly communicative quality in his phrasing, and music simply pours out of him naturally and easily. His choice of tempi throughout were exemplary and it was altogether it was a beautiful performance from him that for the moment at least seemed perfect.

Alas, Palmer accompanied with a heavier tread. His opening tutti was dull, and there was little feeling in his conducting throughout the work. The contrast between the soloist’s acute sensitivity and the conductor’s plodding response was of course evident particularly in the dialogue between soloist and orchestra in the second movement.

For the programme’s opening Schubert symphony Palmer chose swift basic tempi in both movements. From the outset it was obvious that he has a good, clear baton technique, and is able to secure precise, disciplined ensemble from his players. But he simply steered his way through the first movement with no expressive inflections whatsoever; and with the exposition repeat taken it seemed an unusually long journey. The same characteristics were evident in the second movement too, and at his brisk tempo Palmer was even tempted sometimes to conduct one in a bar, thereby reducing the music’s natural rhythm still further.

Of course, it would be impossible for a good Czech orchestra to produce a bad performance of a Dvořák symphony, but the players’ natural instincts were again hampered throughout the Seventh Symphony by Palmer’s stiff, unyielding pulse. The third movement was also robbed of its dance-like quality by a hasty tempo. And throughout the work the brass were given their head too much in the somewhat confined Cadogan Hall acoustic, so that they often dominated the orchestral texture, creating a brash, coarse overall effect.

 Alan Sanders

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