The Prague Symphony Orchestra excels in Mahler’s Third a Cadogan Hall

13/11/2019

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mahler: Ester Pavlů (mezzo soprano), Tiffin Boys’ Choir, Ladies of the Brighton Festival Chorus, FOK Prague Symphony Orchestra / Pietari Inkinen. Cadogan Hall, London, 12.11.2019. (CC)

Ester Pavlů (c) Josef Rabara
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Mahler – Symphony No.3 in D minor (1896)

It’s wonderful to experience the Prague Symphony Orchestra, of course, as part of Cadogan Hall’s Zurich International Orchestra Series. But even before the performance started, there was a concern: Mahler’s Third Symphony is huge – gargantuan, in fact – and requires a massive orchestra. Would they even fit on the Cadogan stage? And if they did, how would the acoustic (and our ears) cope?

They fitted thanks to extending the stage some five or six rows into what would have been the audience; the boys’ choir was arrayed on the left in the gallery, the adult chorus on the right (it would appear this was not the case in the Cardiff leg of the tour: review). But as to the acoustic, even at the back of the hall in the Balcony, earplugs would have been a definite plus. The Czech orchestra made no compromises, either, the decibel level cripplingly massive at climaxes.

That said, there was a huge amount to admire here. The sheer standard of orchestral playing was exemplary, the eloquent but powerful trombone of Kurt Neubauer absolutely worthy of singling out. As was the solo horn of Zuzana Rzounková, who appears to be something of a character. Rzounková plays slightly apart from her colleagues, her horn almost slanting into her body; she is also one of the most mobile players I have seen (including when she is not playing, sometimes conducting along with the music). Her playing is superb, attractive for the creaminess of her tone (a given in the Czech orchestras) but also for her carefully, subtly applied vibrato, and she clearly has no problems with stamina. Still a rarity the more West one goes, Rzounková proved how musical and effective well-done vibrato can be, as did, from time to time, the excellent trumpet section.

The Finnish conductor Pietari Inkinen shares with his various conducting compatriots clarity of beat with eloquent expression (think Salonen in that respect). Clearly, he also deeply loves this score – he is, in fact, better known for his Wagner than for his Mahler, and he will conduct the Ring Cycle at Bayreuth in 2020.  Pacing and sculpting the huge, 35-minute first movement (‘Pan Awakes: Summer Marches In’) is no easy task, but in allowing Mahler’s deliberate disjunctions their due, it worked. Particularly noteworthy was Mahler’s layering of strands, which here sounded particularly Ivesian. Creamy low brass contrasted with Mahler’s more acidic writing and from the level of detail, it became more and more clear that Inkinen is drenched in this music, trumpet/oboe doublings adding a lovely touch of acidity, as were the characterfully reedy cor anglais contributions. A word also for the solo violin contributions of the leader, Hiroko Takahashi, who was one of the loudest violin players I think I have come across – no problems with projection there. A pity perhaps that the low strings sounded so dry in staccato, an acoustic issue as opposed to a performance one.

Mahler suggested the break between first and second movements should be around five minutes. It was less here, so that Part II seemed more melded than usual to Part I. Outstanding detail was once more in evidence for the Tempo di menuetto (‘What the flowers in the meadow tell me’) before the disciplined but gesturally strong Commodo (‘What the animals in the forest tell me’) with its excellent off-stage posthorn solo by Marek Zvolánek.

Czech mezzo Ester Pavlů is a simply superb singer with real presence. ‘Discovered’ by José Cura in 2017, she debuted in fascinating repertoire – Weber’s Die drei Pintos, a work topical because it was completed by Mahler – at Prague’s State Opera. Her account of the Nietzsche was mesmeric, her sound at ‘O Mensch’ simply gorgeous. Surprisingly, she used music (the stand can seem a barrier between soloist and audience), but she was completely enrapt – as were the players: the quiet close of the movement was one of the highlights of the evening, perfectly controlled.

The boys of the choir who had been exceptionally well behaved in their long wait to sing, were slightly half-hearted at the beginning of the fifth movement (strangely, the text for the fourth movement was reprinted in the programme booklet, with translation, while that of the fifth was not); the Brighton Festival Chorus was in full and fine voice, though.

The choirs remained standing for a surprisingly long stretch of the concluding Adagio. Here, some of the weight of expression was lost. It felt very slightly fast throughout. Perhaps a touch excitable when it came to the climaxes, there was nevertheless a noble thread running through this finale, a post-climactic flute solo by Hana Brožová particularly noteworthy.

I remain unsure why the list of orchestral players has a tendency to put the names of the Principals in amongst the list of names rather than at the top – a nod towards egalitarianism, perhaps? Whatever the case, the Prague Symphony Orchestra is a fine ensemble under a most confident conductor. One aches to hear Inkinen’s Ring cycle …

Colin Clarke

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