Czech Musicians Bring Sparkle to Smetana, Shostakovich and Dvořák

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Smetana, Shostakovich, Dvořák: Natalie Clein (cello), Czech National Symphony Orchestra / Libor Pešek & Heiko Mathias Förster (conductors), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 20.11.2016 (SRT)

Smetana – From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields
Shostakovich – Cello Concerto No.1
Dvořák – Symphony No.9 ‘From the New World’

The life of a touring orchestra is a strange one at the best of times, and for some it’s even more constrained by your country of origin.  British or American orchestras have very few repertoire expectations when they play, and French or Austro-German orchestras have such a huge repertoire to choose from that their choice is pretty much limitless.  However, if you’re a Czech orchestra then woe betide you if you don’t play something by Smetana, Dvořák, Janáček or Martinů, and some audiences expect you to programme all four!

On that principle, the Czech National Symphony Orchestra decided to give them what they want with the most famous Czech symphony and an extract from the Czech lands’ founding musical cycle, Má Vlast.  Far be it from me to complain, though.  From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields was played with a beautiful gleam on the strings and a hugely persuasive rhythm as the dance moments gently unfolded.

Dvořák’s “New World” symphony sounded marvellous too.  The orchestra’s sound is anchored in a warm string tone with bright violins and an imposing brass section that added huge weight to Dvořák’s climaxes, as well as glowing with gentle splendour at the outer edges of the famous slow movement.  The winds sparkled too, giving tremendous individuality to the Trio of the third movement, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard the bird chatter of the Largo played with so much personality.  Veteran Libor Pešek had a beautiful way with the score, too.  He must have conducted this symphony so often that he could do it in his sleep, but there was never any sense of mere routine.  Instead every phrase was lovingly shaped and often delicately shaded with individual touches.  The famous slow movement, for example, was taken faster than usual, sounding quietly affirmative rather than nostalgic, and the finale was unusually disciplined, sounding rigorous rather than merely exciting.

It helps the programmers if there’s a non-Czech work there too, and it’s a special thing to have Shostakovich’s caustic first cello concerto played with uncommon lyricism by the marvellous Natalie Clein, who brought an unusual sense of smoothness to the outer movements, with an unsettling keening sound to the lament of the second movement.  The cadenza was extraordinary, Clein playing as though the cello was an extension of her own body, and almost as arresting was the ghostly sound she achieved at the very top of her register at the end of the Moderato.  The orchestral strings, too, were beautifully nuanced in their playing, sounding marvellous in the chorale of the slow movement, and the brilliant horn soloist was as clean as a whistle.

It’s a shame that their encore was so poorly chosen; a rather tacky-sounding tango chosen, I assume, to showcase the talents of Jan Hasenöhrl, the orchestra’s Chief Trumpeter and founder.  Next time they should bow to the inevitable and play a Slavonic Dance.

Simon Thompson

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