BBC Proms reviews

Prom 50: Czech Philharmonic Orchestra / Bělohlávek @ Royal Albert Hall, London

24 August 2014

Royal Albert Hall

Royal Albert Hall (Photo: Andy Paradise/Royal Albert Hall)

The Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and their chief conductor Jiří Bělohlávek brought a programme to the Proms in which the mighty voices of Janáček and Dvořák held sway prior to a no less imposing Beethoven symphony.

The overture to Janáček’s last opera From the House of the Dead, written in 1927-8, is an unsurprisingly dark affair at heart but Jiří Bělohlávek ensured that the performance achieved a balance of timbres between the thick string unison often in evidence and the opposing woodwind lines. That the overture drew on sketches for an earlier abandoned violin concerto was clear in the prominent solo line, the feeling of a lone voice surviving within an oppressive environment evinced through the eloquent playing of leader Josef Špaček Jr. It was, however, the feeling of relentless oppression that left its indelible mark through the imposing contributions of the trumpets and percussion.

Dvořák’s cello concerto – once a rarity of its genre for the instrument – lightened the overall mood considerably. The opening Allegro might have opened with the mordant contribution of the orchestra’s bassoons but this quickly gave way to robust and ebullient playing from the strings as they seized upon the clutch of thematic ideas Dvořák employs. Alisa Weilerstein’s entry was at once richly Romantic in feel and with a succulent vibrato to her singing solo part she found depth in the nuanced details as she skilfully negotiated the many changes of mood and tempo to be of one accord with Bělohlávek’s orchestra. The Allegro ma non troppo middle movement brought elegance from the orchestra, where restraint of utterance in the brass and woodwind parts was a most effective support to Weilerstein’s plaintive solo. Imposing orchestral tutti became more forthright still under Bělohlávek’s direction, but a course was steered that found qualities of grandeur and nobility as well as moments of hushed reverie within the whole movement. The Allegro moderato finale provided contrast with its appropriately rousing and rhythmically incisive initial orchestral statements, produced with unassuming ease and authority by this crack band of Czech musicians. Weilerstein matched them at every turn with playing of élan that demonstrated once again just why she ranks amongst the foremost cellists performing today, and together the concerto was brought to a thrilling and absorbing conclusion. As a solo encore Weilerstein played the Sarabande from J. S. Bach’s C major Suite, BWV1009, with a refined simplicity of tone.

Beethoven’s seventh symphony was written following a visit to the Bohemian spa town of Teplitz in 1811-12, but contemporary reactions to the work were not of one mind: Weber pronounced it – and Beethoven – “ripe from the madhouse” due to the work’s obsessive repetitions, whilst Wagner thought one of its movements “the apotheosis of the dance”. Bělohlávek’s performance with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra veered rather more towards Weber’s opinion than Wagner’s in its overall conception from first to last, though occasionally some lighter elements were allowed to emerge. The opening movement was initially weighty; the string tone was built from the bottom upwards with the orchestra’s eight double basses and violins squeezing out the viola and cello parts. Elements of freshness entered that would not have been out of place in the Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony with the change to a vivace tempo, but the thickly accented tenor of things prevailed although both direction and execution were always a cut above that of a routine performance. Greater lightness of touch was to be enjoyed in the second movement, the orchestra displaying its abilities with confidence even in subdued passages. This was at heart a decidedly old school interpretation of the earlier 20th century rather than anything informed by performance practice from Beethoven’s time, as the final two movements made clear. The Allegro con brio final movement was relentlessly driven, and if any dance like inspiration lay behind Bělohlávek’s conception it was that of a furiant. Tensions were built and weighty tone maintained, though by this stage its monotony began to pall slightly and make the omission of the repeat rather welcome. It was a performance that was thunderously greeted in the hall and drew no less than three Czech encores in response. First came a precise and idiomatic performance of Dvořák’s A flat Slavonic Dance, op.46 no 3, followed by the Skočná from Smetana’s opera The Bartered Bride which once again saw the string section execute at speed with refinement. Oskar Nedbal’s fine Valse triste drew the evening to a close.

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