PROM 50: Jiří Bĕlohlávek Brings the Czech Philharmonic to the Proms

United KingdomUnited KingdomPROM 50: Janáček, Dvořák, Beethoven.Alisa Weilerstein (cello); Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, Jiří Bĕlohlávek (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 24.8.2014 (CC)

Janáček           Overture: From the House of the Dead(Z Mrtvého domu)
Dvořák            Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104
Beethoven       Symphony No. 7 in A, Op. 92


A strange happenstance this: after spending three weeks in the Czech Republic, at last I heard a Czech Orchestra this summer– around the corner, metaphorically speaking, at the Proms. The Czech Philharmonic is a magnificent instrument, its strings warm, its brass full and its woodwind characterful. But the horns now seem to eschew any hint of vibrato  – a pity, particularly in the first movement solo in the Dvořák – and its sound is generally less immediately obvious as Central European  as might be expected. Is this a sign of a worldwide homogenisation of orchestras?.

 The first half consisted of music from the orchestra’s homeland, albeit with an American soloist. First, the brief but effective overture to Janáček’s From the House of the Dead (Z Mrtvého domu). It’s a fateful piece: the percussion includes a set of chains and the piece ends with “terminator” timpani strokes. The Albert Hall’s acoustic blunted the immediacy and the detail of Janáček’s score, though (one does not encounter this on the BBC relay but it was all too present from the stalls). Solo violin work (Josef Špaček) was excellently delivered, and Bĕlohlávek ensured the score’s intensity was visceral.

 Alisa Weilerstein is an America cellist who recently recorded the Dvořák    Cello Concerto with these very forces. The tempo for the first movement seemed remarkably brisk, yet beautifully and indigenously Czech in the opening tutti; Weilerstein’s response was more overtly virtuosic, less Dvořákian, although she relaxed well into the lyrical second subject, which she projected perfectly. The slow movement brought a sense of relief as it became clear that here soloist, conductor and orchestra were working as one. The result was a reading of great beauty. The differences resurfaced in the finale to some degree, with the orchestra impeccably of its homeland, and Weilerstein back to the overt virtuoso. Her encore was a thing of beauty: a deliciously ruminative performance of the Sarabande from Bach’s Third Cello Suite.

 The move to Beethoven was inspired programming. The first movement’s highlight was actually the Poco sostenuto, which flowed wonderfully and where much care to detail was in evidence. While the Vivace had much to commend it – including the exposition repeat – tension slackened somewhat in the development. The remaining movements each had much to offer: delightful woodwind in the Allegretto, punchy dynamism and a characterful pair of bassoons in the third movement – where there was only a minor slowing for the Trio – and superb string articulation in the finale. The orchestral layout ensured Beethoven’s counterpoint made its full effect.

 Three Czech encores were played, each as wonderful as the last: more Dvořák (the third Slavonic Dance, delivered with impeccable style), Smetana (the skittering “Skočná” from the third act of Bartered Bride) and the brilliantly sleek and slick Valse triste by Oskar Nedbal (1874-1930). In this last encore, the phrasing of the Czech strings was all one could wish for, the perfect parting gift.

Colin Clarke


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