Brilliant Bohemia Comes to Basingstoke

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Dvořák, Beethoven, Smetana: Freddy Kempf (piano), Czech Philharmonic Orchestra / Jiří Bělohlávek (conductor), The Anvil, Basingstoke, 16.4. 2013 (NB)

Dvořák : Slavonic Dances Nos. 9,10 & 15
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No.5 ‘Emperor’
Smetana: Má Vlast (Vltava, From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields, Šárka)

Another feather in the cap for the planners of the Anvil’s International Concert series. Last night saw a performance by one of the truly great orchestras of the world, the Czech Philharmonic under their principal conductor Jiří Bělohlávek. The largest audience of the series since the turn of the year warmly greeted the orchestra as well as the evening’s soloist. Freddy Kempf.

One of the collective delights of this excellent concert series has been the opportunity to compare and contrast some of the finest ensembles from around the world playing similar repertoire in the same hall. For all that we should celebrate the great democracy of music there is the counter-argument that orchestras – for all their technical excellence – now sound remarkably similar where subtle variations of regional training and collective aesthetic are subsumed by globalisation of the orchestral marketplace. How refreshing then to hear a Czech Orchestra consisting of players literally born and bred in that country playing their own music. I have to admit to a certain starry-eyed awe of this orchestra but this concert simply proved my obsession well-founded.

For all of the delight in hearing Czech music played to the manner born this was not the best-programmed concert of the series. Starting with three of the second set of Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances did rather feel as if we were getting the encore before the concert had started. But these were pieces written for a different age and now they are all but impossible to programme in concert except by using an odd one as an encore or in a ‘pops’ programme. The three chosen here formed an effective little suite but the real delight was the vehicle they provided to demonstrate the exceptional qualities of the players. In an ideal world it would have made for a more interesting programme to feature some other Czech music – by Martinů or Janáček perhaps.

Except for the concerto, Bělohlávek conducted from memory, and immediately drew from the orchestra a swaggeringly brilliant sound. This was patrician conducting of the highest order – quite unlike the bouncingly over-eager and interventionist Andris Nelsons earlier in the season. Bělohlávek understands that with players of this calibre it is really not necessary to try and whip them up to every climax – concision of movement and precision of detail suffice. Two things are immediately apparent – one visual and one aural. The double basses are lined across the back of the orchestra. Physically this dominates the ‘picture’ of the orchestra on stage with a phalanx of eight players looming over their colleagues. But aurally it provides a stunningly firm foundation on which the entire sound is based. And what a sound: extraordinarily well blended with far less differentiation between sections. Instead we are given a resultant orchestral sound with the collective attack and articulation of near-perfect brilliance. Of course, when the music allows a section or particular instrument to stand out they do. Dvořák is very demanding of the upper strings especially – finger twisting passage work that needs to sound as effortlessly good-humoured as it is, in fact, horribly complicated. Given that these players have probably been listening to this music from the cradle it would be strange if there was anything but the utter sense of ‘rightness’ that we heard. I do wish they would invest in a pair of crash cymbals that sound less like a couple of tin trays being dropped – but again this seems to ‘go with the territory’ and is a small price to pay. Placing the violas on the right hand edge of the stage allowed their lines to register in a way that the more traditional seating plan limits.

The concert provided another instalment in the series of complete Beethoven Piano Concertos we have been given since the turn of the year. The climax of the cycle – No.5 “The Emperor” was entrusted to the very popular British pianist Freddy Kempf. My suspicion is that the size of the audience was more due to Kempf’s presence rather than the Czech PO. Here was another chance for an interesting juxtaposition to be made. Just last week we were given the early First Concerto in an extraordinarily revelatory performance by Khatia Buniatishvili. Her considerable achievement was to take a very familiar work and in effect re-conceptualise it. That is a risky procedure and one that will win as many converts as it does nay-sayers. I was fascinated to hear Kempf’s approach. Especially since the programme biography described him as; “ explosive and physical performer not afraid to take risks as well as a serious, sensitive and profoundly musical artist.” OK, strip away the publicist’s obligatory hyperbola but that is still pretty strong stuff – well supported by an impressive performance diary in most of the world’s major venues. Perhaps last night was just an off-night because I found Kempf’s playing strikingly lacking in imagination or personality. At this level technical excellence has to be a given, and so it was here but I found my attention wandering and time dragging.

In basic terms this was a very ‘standard’ performance – tempi were judiciously judged and the broad musical gestures perfectly acceptable. What it lacked were the extra moments of intuitive genius to remove this from the realm of proficiently routine. From my seat Kempf favoured the leading right hand melodies with the accompanying left hand often submerged in the orchestral detail. Certainly Kempf physicalises his playing to a considerable degree but there is a discrepancy between the amount of effort one sees and the power of the sound produced. Throughout the concerto the Czech Philharmonic were attentive and alert accompanists taking advantage of any solo opportunities to produce the same focused polished sound they had earlier. Likewise, Bělohlávek was a model of discreet attention. None of which could lift the performance out of the humdrum. Even the finale remained effortful rather than joyful. Important to note though that this was very warmly received by the audience in the hall – to the extent that it merited an encore “..if you insist..” Kempf rather disarmingly commented before playing the slow movement of Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata. Again, I was singularly unmoved. Bělohlávek snuck back in to sit on one of the empty chairs at the back of the violins to listen to the encore – a gesture of comradely respect that I thought both touching and impressive.

The second half found the orchestra back on home ground – in a very literal sense. To have the chance to hear this great orchestra playing their Country’s most nationalistic piece, Má Vlast, was a rare treat. Time permitted only three of the six works that make the complete cycle of Symphonic Poems to be played. But these are complete works in their own right so such a selection can work even if it does leave you wanting more. Vlast is Smetana’s most enduring work. It is also the piece with which the Czech Philharmonic opens the Prague Spring Festival every year and the first work the orchestra recorded back in 1929 under Václav Talich. – all of which is a slightly convoluted way of saying its a work they know rather well. But on the evidence of last night this is not a familiarity that has bred contempt. Bělohlávek led a brilliantly collaborative performance which opened with the second of the pieces; Vltava. This is the famous ‘portrait’ of the river Moldau as it flows through Bohemia. From the very opening it was evident this was going to be a performance etched with subtle detail and performed with great skill. Bělohlávek ensured the cross-cutting accents registered brilliantly evoking the eddies and currents of the great river. What impressed especially was his ability to build long musical paragraphs which allowed the music to cohere. All of these works are by nature pictorial and sectional – the hardest task for any conductor is to paint the musical picture without allowing the structure to become overly episodic. Bělohlávek’s handling of tempi relationships ensured that the music flowed with such a sense of natural inevitability that one often lost any awareness of the ‘joins’ in the music lesser conductors expose. The playing highlights were the interweaving flutes of the very opening, a wonderfully earthy polka and a beautifully transcendent moonlit interlude. The latter section gave an excellent example of the blend of sound the orchestra achieves where the heavy brass and horns ‘fill’ the overall musical picture and give sinew and muscle to the collective texture rather than dominating it as they often do in other ensembles.

To give a logical dramatic shape to this selection of three tone poems the original positions of ‘From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields’ and Šárka were reversed. Again, one could but marvel at the exceptional unity and effortless attack of the playing. Additionally, the rustic elements of the second poem allowed the characterful woodwind of the orchestra to shine. Likewise, the horns were able to relish the warmth of the Anvil’s rightly famed acoustic to produce a sonorously impressive chorale aided by colleagues in the rest of the brass. The rich climax of this passage producing exactly the kind of sound you hope to hear from a great orchestra; glorious weight of tone without any sense of the dynamics being forced to achieve passing excitement. This movement also features an extended passage of fugato writing for the strings that tests the mettle of any orchestra. here it was so neat and precise that one wondered how it could ever sound hard.

The programme notes [which along the way managed to allocate to Bělohlávek the role of piano soloist as well as Kempf] here rightly described Šárka as the most cinematic music in the cycle. Certainly from the surgingly dramatic opening [its the shortest of the set too] through to its blood-thirsty conclusion it made for a fittingly powerful end to the concert. The orchestra’s principal clarinettist made the most of his extended solos over glassy string tremolandi and if this is not the profoundest music in the cycle it is some of the most immediately exciting. At the risk of sounding repetitive one has to note the sheer skill – both musical and technical – in Bělohlávek’s handling of the work. The three movements we did not hear are those that are the most overtly nationalistic whilst the three we were given are both the most popular internationally and the most polished in composition terms. That being the case it was probably a rather skilful selection but I would happily have traded the Beethoven for the rest of Má Vlast.

A personal bugbear of mine is audience members who dash out as the last note is still reverberating around the hall. Given the average age of the Classical Music audience I cannot imagine childcare is the issue, rather a wish to avoid a rush at the car-park. But given how hard the players have worked for the last two hours or more I find such selfishness annoying. Hence I take some slightly malicious delight in the fact that by so doing they missed the excellent, life-enhancing second encore of the evening. This time more Smetana – the famous Skocná (Dance of the Comedians)from The Bartered Bride. This is a dashingly brilliant showpiece for orchestra and one they clearly love playing. Bělohlávek enjoyed himself too being visibly more demonstrative here too and it brought the concert to a swirling and thrilling end. I do like the way many continental orchestras shake hands with their desk partners as they leave the stage – there’s a real sense of collaborative effort and mutual respect. A wonderful orchestra on top form.

Nick Barnard