Top Ten Czechs Play Safe on Tour

SwitzerlandSwitzerland   Smetana, Chopin, Dvorak  Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, Nikolai Lugansky (piano), Jiri Belohlavek (conductor), Tonhalle   Zurich (JR)

Smetana: “Vltava” from “Ma Vlast
Chopin : Piano Concerto No. 2
Dvorak: Symphony No. 9

The Czechs are on European tour under their Principal Conductor Jiri Belohlavek. Having just been to Ljubljana, Udine and Zagreb, they arrived in Zurich en route for Basle and, ultimately, after a break, go on to Berlin (March 9th). They will also tour China in May/June. Czech music, unsurprisingly, is predominant on their programme with some added Rachmaninov, Brahms and Beethoven. So, conservative fare to pull in the European punters and not frighten the Chinese.

Their Zurich concert played to a virtually full hall and commenced with the most famous bleeding chunk from “My Fatherland”/“Ma Vlast”, “Vltava” /“Die Moldau” (composed by Smetana just before he went deaf). Played by almost every school and county orchestra, it was good to hear this tone poem played by an orchestra with this music very much in its blood. Most impressive were the two flautists effortlessly simulating the ebb and flow of the river and the shrillness of the piccolo.

The Chopin was less successful. Nikolai Lugansky mastered the technical requirements of this concerto with consummate ease (nimble finger-work throughout and breathtaking final pages) but it left me cold. The piece has its structural weaknesses and orchestration is minimal, so even a super-pianist in Lugansky’s league could not win me over.

Dvorak’s Ninth Symphony, on the other hand, hardly has any weaknesses which is why it has become such a favourite to the extent that it is nowadays overplayed. That can have its own dangers but Belohlavek was aware of them and tried to present the symphony in a new light, bringing out some details that can disappear in an everyday devil-may-care performance. It was a delight to listen to the Czech sound, particularly the woodwind sounding so very Central European. The strings may not have the Viennese sheen, nor the brass an incisive attack, but the sound is warm, rustic and blended. Yet again, the flutes caught the ear and, of course, the beautiful cor anglais player in his famous solo did not disappoint. Belohlavek is somewhat Kapellmeisterish and fails to excite on the podium, but the end result is more than satisfactory.

My single gripe: this concert was a sort of “classics hit-parade” which should grace Saturday Night at the Albert Hall or Classic FM rather than the Tonhalle: top ten starter followed by top ten piano concerto, top ten symphony, ending up with top ten encore. Apparently “Le Monde de la Musique” carried out a survey in 2006 of music critics and the Czechs made it into the top ten of European orchestras (only just, I suspect). But why not perform some Janacek, or Martinu, or Suk (not to mention the many “unknown” Czech composers)?  The orchestra plays too safe with its programming.  Little did they know, when planning their tour, that the Tonhalle Orchestra under David Zinman will perform Dvorak’s 9th on three evenings later this week. The comparison will be interesting – watch this space.

Smetana’s “Bartered Bride” Overture provided an apt and entertaining encore and ensured this fine orchestra a very appreciative reception.

John Rhodes