United Kingdom Smetana, Mendelssohn, Vaughan Williams, Dvořák: Josef Špaček (violin), Czech Philharmonic, Jiří Bělohlávek (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 19.4.2015 (SRT)
Smetana: Excerpts from The Bartered Bride
Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto
Vaughan Williams: The Lark Ascending
Dvořák: Symphony No. 7
The Czech Philharmonic know the Usher Hall well. This is one of their most regular stops when they tour the UK and they had a multiple-night residency during the 2014 Edinburgh International Festival. So their playing was relaxed and buoyant during this concert, and that will surely have been helped by the fact that they brought Czech music that’s in their bloodstream. I’m sure I’ve never heard the Bartered Bride overture played with such fizzing clarity as here. Those dashing figurations that feature so heavily in both the Overture and the Skočná (Dance of the Comedians) were all totally clear, played absolutely on-the-note without any hint of blurring. If that sounds simple, it’s also rather rare, and it was dazzling to hear it done with such unaffected brilliance here.
They aren’t just note-spinners, though: they’re always in touch with the spirit of what they play, with buckets of local colour coming through in their style. That was equally true in their Dvořák. The Seventh Symphony is the most serious of the composer’s mature symphonies, and the Czechs played it with a real sense of drama, helped by Bělohlávek’s peerless ability to shape this composer’s dramatic paragraphs with proper light and shade. However, the Bohemian lilt that lies close to the surface in nearly all Dvořák’s symphonies was allowed to shine through, too, so that the national colour of so many of the themes was allowed to live and breathe, never stifled by the importance of the symphonic argument.
The distinctiveness of the Czech sound comes partly from the fact that they are nearly all drawn from the same nation and, therefore, are steeped in their own local tradition. Linked with that, however, there is a sense of forward propulsion, of extroversion to their playing that gives the sound a very outgoing quality with everything projected forwards. The layout of the orchestra probably helps, with the basses placed at the very back and centre, behind the winds, which seems to push the sound further out into the audience and lends extra depth to the sound focus. I really noticed that resonant bass line adding an extra layer to the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, but this was otherwise a much more lyrical, inward-looking performance than was the Smetana. It wasn’t just to do with the reduced size of the orchestra, but with the more reflective tone struck by both Bělohlávek and the players.
It might have helped that the soloist was their own Concertmaster, rising star Josef Špaček. Consequently he tended to embrace the orchestral sound rather than stand out from it, and the resulting match sounded much more poetic than confrontational. Špaček’s own playing style seemed more lyrical, too, underplaying the stridency of many of the themes and focusing on the beauty, with a gorgeously played second subject and, even more impressively, double-stopped quavers that really fitted into the solo line in the slow movement’s central section.
Likewise, his Lark Ascending was gentle and unassuming, fully in step with the long, long line that Vaughan Williams spins, and entirely in keeping with the music’s sense of suspended animation. It’s refreshing to hear this piece played by a non-British band (this tour was the first time Špaček had played it) and the orchestral playing was a lot less sentimental than I’m used to hearing on this side of the channel. They are touring to Nottingham, Bristol, Basingstoke, Birmingham and Saffron Walden for the rest of this week, and are well worth hearing if you get the chance.