Friday 4 September 2020, Dvořák Hall, Rudolfinum, Prague

Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga

Traditionally Smetana and Dvořák are the standby openers of any Czech festival. No surprise then to find this all-Dvořák programme, nor its populist content: the Cello Concerto and Ninth Symphony. Occasionally, you’ll come across something special. Kubelík’s Czech Philharmonic Má vlast (1990). Jakub Hrůša’s Bamberg account last year. Both at the Prague Spring. But players and conductors generally get through this kind of repertory in a pretty routine way. And there’s little changing of the guard from programme planners with tourist targets to meet. Dvořák’s late tone poems for instance – a wondrous body of music and orchestral painting – rarely get the hearing they deserve. His earlier symphonies similarly.

In a reading more careful than carefree, clean but prone to a certain heavy footedness, Václav Petr, principal cellist of the Czech Philharmonic, proved best in the more expressive pages of the Concerto. The sound of Czech woodwind has always been distinctive – think of those pre-war days of Casals and Szell. Today’s players feel and entwine the phrases, blend the ensemble, in much the same way. This is music and melody in their blood. Less finesse, though, was apparent in the tuttis. Or so it seemed. We’re so used to the starry soloists and big-band orchestras of modern Western Europe and America dispatching this music in glossy terms that we’ve perhaps forgotten its humbler, more rustic DNA. The rural domesticity, the rough-grained fortissimos, the dried-out sound balance of the webcast, certainly took me aback at times. One grew used to it – without ever feeling that captivated.

Contrastingly, the ‘New World’ Symphony, liberated and full-voiced, fired the imagination, Semyon Bychkov crafting a sweeping narrative. First movement exposition repeat. An ‘open space’ cor anglais solo in the Largo, poignant but free of sentimentality. A spine-tingling Scherzo, corners artfully negotiated, woodwind chorus in songful accord, the dance pulse acute, eight double basses raked imposingly at the back of the stage below the organ. A noble Finale symphonically driven – the many solos placed lyrically, the strings en masse creating a richly variegated canvas of backcloth and foreground, the brass (compensating for earlier intonation slips) redolent of Watt’s Physical Energy, the closing tableau (impeccably judged) ascending to poetic, grand heights receding in a protracted lunga corona followed by silence … Bychkov, eyes closed, lost in humility … audience respectful. Old tunes in storybook dress and surroundings, life-enhancing whatever their foxing and faded leather.