United Kingdom Dvořák & Smetana: Natalie Clein (cello), Czech National Symphony Orchestra / Libor Pešek (conductor), Cadogan Hall, London, 9.11.2016. (GD)
Smetana – Má Vlast ‘From Bohemia’s Fields and Woods’
Dvořák – Cello Concerto in B minor, Op.104; Symphony No.8 in G major, Op.88
The Dvořák Cello Concerto is a sine qua non for any aspiring cellist. And indeed, legendary cellists like Feuermann, Casals, Fournier and Rostropovich have all made it a speciality with illustrious and multiple recordings. I have always thought it strange that, with the exception of Schumann, composers like Brahms (who had a special liking of the cello) never composed a cello concerto – although his Double Concerto was in some ways influenced by Dvořák’s great example. Dvořák’s concerto is full of wonderful melodies and dramatic contrasts, with absolutely beautiful orchestral scoring. But it is no easy ride for the soloist. From the first movement’s initial solo cello entry – a quasi improvisando – there are some fiendishly difficult triple-stoppings to negotiate, And the coda introduces some demanding octaves and double-stoppings. So how did British cellist Natalie Clein do here? Well mostly excellently, particularly the difficult triple-stopping, and the transition into E major development section, and the B major coda with a high B octave. Occasionally I think she could have minimised her vibrato, but it never seriously interfered with her overall interpretation. Also, she engaged in quite a lot of head-tossing and various facial expressions. I know that this is part of the creative process of engagement, but sometimes it became a distraction vis-à-vis a real appreciation of her playing. I remember hearing Fournier performing this concerto with Adrian Boult in London, and the French master’s extra-musical gestures were absolutely minimal, as were his vibrato. But on the plus side Clein was admirable, especially in the way she never stood out as THE soloist in the narcissistic sense, but integrated beautifully with the orchestra, while never departing from the integrity of her interpretation, actually making her contribution all the more compelling.
In the G major Adagio ma non troppo (never dragging) there was a most engaging rapport between soloist and conductor, particularly in the lyrical dialogue with flutes, and Clein’s double-stops accompanied by left hand pizzicatos on open-strings, were beautifully contoured. Likewise, in the rondo finale Clein was particularly impressive in the poco meno mosso section with its fast arpeggios played in sixteenth note triplets. Special mention must go to conductor Libor Pešek, who was the ideal accompanist. Nothing was overdone, or inflated, and he brought out the glowing horn theme in the first movement introduction with total mastery. And the Allegro vivo coda of the finale was not rushed to produce a vulgar grandstand effect, as is so often the case; the last two sforzato tutti chords were not smudged but clearly and rhythmically delineated as two separate and powerful chords. There is little doubt that Clein learnt a lot from Pešek (now 83) who is steeped in the Czech tradition studying with such Czech masters as: Ančerl, Smetáček and Neumann. Following the tradition of master conductors like; Toscanini, Boult, Monteux, Talich, Kubelik, and Sejna, to name just a few, Pešek never engaged in ‘antic’ conducting, every gesture being for the music, with a perfect and economic baton technique – no jumping, bizarre grimacing, crouching or bold/extravagant gestures for the audience. As an encore Clein gave us a beautiful and moving rendition of The Song of the Birds, a traditional Catalan song, arranged for cello by Pablo Casals.
The Dvořák Eighth Symphony was a delight from beginning to end. I have heard many performances and recordings of this popular symphony, but not many as compelling as was heard tonight. Pešek has the rare ability to make this symphony sound enormously enjoyable without turning it into a virtuoso orchestral showpiece, as so often happens, and he never lost sight of the work as a symphony. From the flowing melodies of the opening Allegro con brio, with a perfectly timed G minor development section and rousing coda, through the flowing lyrical andante, the graceful waltz of the third movement and the festive finale in rondo/variation form, Pešek articulated every rhythmic nuance and lyrical contrast with consummate mastery. He never let a particular detail stem the contour and flow of the whole. Of especial excellence was the way in which he made the magical transition to the minor in the second movement, initiated by a chromatic figure in the horn, without ever making the passage appear underlined or melodramatic. Pešek also toned down the more overt ‘circus’ elements in the finale without ever losing sight of the festive delights the music arouses. There was some occasional untidy ensemble, especially in the first movement, but this in no way detracted from the overall excellence and inspiration of the orchestral playing. Pešek deployed non-antiphonal violins but articulated each section with such care and clarity that it became a non-issue. As an encore he gave us a brilliant tango (‘Libertango’) by the Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla. It was part of what the composer called ’Nuevo Tango’, including elements of Jazz and Classical. It is superbly orchestrated, with a wonderful trumpet part (almost a mini-trumpet concerto), and in some ways is similar to Shostakovich’s Jazz Suites, But it has an unmistakable Latin (Argentinian) rhythm and feeling all of its own. Alison Balsom made it more popular at the 2009 Last Night of the Proms. But I found the orchestra’s principal trumpeter Jan Hasenöhrl infinitely more engaging. I am not aware of any cultural or musical cross-over between Argentinian and Czech musical traditions, but both Hasenöhrl and Pešek seem to have an instinctive feeling for Argentinian tango rhythms. Perhaps it is to do with that wonderful and irresistible Czech sense of lilting dance rhythms? Piazzolla’s tango theme certainly stays in the head. As I write I can still hear it! The Hasenöhrl performance (with Pešek with the CNSO), can be heard on YouTube.
This concert was one of a series of concerts celebrating the orchestras 23rd birthday in 2016. I have often seen films (from Hollywood mainstream, to ‘art-house’ European and independent films) with a soundtrack played by a Czech orchestra, and the Czech National Symphony Orchestra is one such orchestras. They have played the soundtracks for such films as Quentin Tarantino’s western The Hateful Eight. And, as the programme notes tell us, they often engage in jazz concerts and musicals, as well as film scores. Of course, they play regular classical concerts – usually a mixture of standard works and less played, modern works. I am sure that in part it is this diversity which gives them such a fresh and innovative sound quality, while never losing that distinct and wonderful ‘Czech’ sound.
All these qualities, with captivating, almost bucolic woodwinds, were there in abundance in the opening work, ‘From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields’, the fourth part of Smetana’s great homage to Czech music and culture Má Vlast, with its abundance of flowing melodies and folk derived dance rhythms. I could, throughout the concert, hear every strand in the music. This was due in part to the wonderfully open acoustic of the Cadogan Hall. Far more music-friendly than the dry, cavernous acoustic of the Royal Festival Hall. Overall this was a most enjoyable and compelling concert directed by a master conductor.