United Kingdom Edinburgh International Festival 2014 (18) – Janáček, Korngold, Martinů: Nicola Benedetti (violin), Czech Philharmonic Orchestra / Jiří Bělohlávek (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 22.8.2014 (SRT)
Janáček: Prelude: From the House of the Dead
Korngold: Violin Concerto
Martinů: Symphony No. 4
For their two-night EIF residency, the Czech Philharmonic are playing only works by Czech composers – and tonight that even extended to their Smetana encore. As I cast my eye down the list of very Czech names in the orchestra list, I thought how good it is that, in our modern globalised world, this is an orchestra that is still so utterly grounded in its native soil. They do other music extremely well too, of course, but they’re as good as it gets when it comes to their fellow Czechs.
Their way with Janáček, for example, understands the very essence of this composer’s strange but successful marriage of the brittle and the lyrical, the jagged angles of the House of the Dead overture, complete with rattling chains, contrasting with the soaring melodic lines of the two solo violins. Likewise, their playing of the Korngold concerto had just the right element of soft focus that allows the melodies to breathe in their context, with an overall emphasis on beauty of sound which, in this work, is no bad thing. Nicola Benedetti responded in kind with playing of soaring lyricism in the first two movements, met by jagged, staccato virtuosity for the gallop of the finale.
Martinů can be a difficult composer to make sense of, though, and it was wise to bring his Fourth Symphony to Edinburgh, the most lyrical and approachable of his set. It’s clearly a work that this orchestra have in their bloodstream, from the glimmering, colourful opening to the gigantic sense of movement in the Scherzo. Hearing them play this work, it was the soulful quality of the strings that stood out most, particularly the violins who really came into their own in the long lines of the slow movement. Likewise, Bělohlávek’s choice to arrange the basses at the back and centre of the orchestra seemed to unleash their sound with an effect that was liberating and enervating. The whole sound came together in a rich, even refulgent ending that put the crown on the symphony.
The Edinburgh International Festival runs until Sunday 31st August in venues across the city. For full details click here.