Majestic and exceptionally accomplished Mendelssohn from Semyon Bychkov and the Czech Philharmonic

Czech RepublicCzech Republic Bryce Dessner, Mendelssohn: Katia and Marielle Labèque (pianos), Czech Philharmonic Orchestra / Semyon Bychkov (conductor). Performed at Rudolfinum, Prague, 4.2.2021 and available livestreamed (directed by Michael Beyer) on various platforms. (JPr)

The Czech Philharmonic Orchestra in the Rudolfinum

Bryce Dessner – Concerto for Two Pianos

Mendelssohn – Symphony No.3 (‘The Scottish’), Op.56

A virtual musical world has brought me to Prague which is such a characterful city. If there is any upside at all to a pandemic, it has had the chance to recover from being labelled (sadly) the hen and stag party capital of the world. This livestream brought a glimpse of the city at night-time before settling in the plush interior of the neo-renaissance Rudolfinum, the home of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. For interest – since I was wondering myself – it is named after Rudolf, Crown Prince of Austria, who opened it in 1885.

The ‘Scottish’ is apparently Mendelssohn’s most famous symphony and in 1842 was the last of the five he completed, however, was the third to be published. After a successful London concert season in 1829, Mendelssohn set off on a walking tour of Scotland with his companion Karl Klingemann and arrived there in July. It was their visit to the ruined chapel of Holyrood Palace which inspired this symphony. For more than a decade he was not satisfied with it and revised it several times before it became the work we now know. It was premiered in the Leipzig Gewandhaus in March 1842 and the appellation ‘Scottish’ only became attached to it following Mendelssohn’s death in 1847.

The first movement (Andante con moto — Allegro un poco agitato) begins quietly and builds to a joyous outburst. It is very atmospheric with drama alternating with jauntiness that saw the orchestra and conductor swaying at times. There is a stormy interlude before the movement – the longest of the symphony – races to its end and the music calms down. The brief Vivace non troppo is very lively and it is here in the reminiscences of folk music than we hear a ‘Scottish’ influence most. This scherzo-like movement was shown bringing a smile to Bychkov’s face and there were virtuosic contributions from Jana Brožková’s oboe and Andrea Rysová’s flute. The third movement (Adagio) opens with a sublime theme of early-Romantic charm over plucked strings before the music becomes slightly more portentous as dark forces oppose those of the light.

Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and Semyon Bychkov (conductor)

For the finale (marked Allegro vivacissimoAllegro maestoso assai) we are not far removed from the composer’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream as the rousing movement generally surges upward – despite shifts in colour and fugal writing – to the final heroic statement in the horns. It was so majestic that it turned an exceptionally accomplished performance into an inspired one as Bychkov bowed to his orchestra in the all-pervading silence of the otherwise empty Rudolfinium. The players had shown they deserved all the praise their chief conductor and music director lavished on them in a pre-recorded interval interview when Bychkov said – amongst much else – how ‘This orchestra is so gifted, these people are so deeply musical, that whatever it is that they love will be in their DNA simply because they are outstanding musicians.’

Opening the relatively short concert was Bryce Dessner’s Concerto for Two Pianos performed by the Labèque sisters for whom it was written. Dessner is a 44-year-old American composer and guitarist who is a member of the rock band The National. When interviewed Marielle explained how when composing a new piano concerto, ‘Normally one piano is enough’ and Katia explained how Dessner ‘plays with his group with as much intensity, as much love, as much desire, that he writes for all the great orchestras of the world, all the chamber music groups, or whatever.’

The Concerto for Two Pianos was premiered with the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall in April 2018. It opens to the sounds of a slapstick ushering in the runs up and down their Steinways from the fast hands of the two piano soloists, Katia (who was seen lifting off her stool on several occasions) and Marielle, against some bombast from the orchestra. It all quietens, and we hear some hints of Debussy and especially Pelléas et Mélisande. Later as the percussion is more involved and there are all the minimalist repetitions, we hear intimations – possibly imitations – of Stravinsky and (Dessner’s older compatriot) Philip Glass. The second movement is tinkly with a certain musical angularity which builds inexorably as if it was underscoring a battle scene in a superheroes’ movie. Occasionally, the sisters are seen playing rapidly at different extremes of their keyboards before it all ends abruptly. The final movement starts quietly and features some jazzy syncopations played with nimble-fingered elegance by the Labèque sisters before there is something of a brass chorale pre-empting the dramatic conclusion.

The members of the Czech Philharmonic – frequently shown in close-up – accompanied Dessner’s 22-minute concerto with commendable enthusiasm for such unfamiliar music. It was equally embraced by the animated Bychkov in an urgent, fleet-footed performance, although he was giving close attention to the score in front of him yet did not need one for the Mendelssohn which was to follow.

Jim Pritchard

For more about the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra click here.

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