A surprising fact to begin with: this complete performance of Smetanas cycle of six symphonic poems, M Vlast, was the first of its kind in BBC Proms history, its outings previously reduced to individual components.
Smetana has in fact been poorly served not just in Proms history but more generally, and it was satisfying indeed to be reminded of his epoch-shifting contribution to Czech music. And who better to do this than compatriot Jir Bělohlávek, who directed a performance of affection, passion and vigour, descriptive in its evocation of Bohemian and Czech landmarks and countryside.
A stately Vyehrad began the cycle, itself being heard at the Royal Albert Hall for the first time since 1909, setting the tone with grace and stature. It was a wonderful sight to see the four BBC Symphony Orchestra harpists in unison at the outset, and as the poem unfolded so did the fluidity of Smetanas melodic writing, the outdoors beckoning through Bělohláveks airy approach.
While in some performances of this cycle Vltava is made to feel like the centrepiece, here Bělohlávek was still building the tension. So while the melodies ran as freely as the great river, it was a tautly argued Srka that grabbed the imagination still more, painting a vivid and often turbulent portrait of the mythological figure. The descriptive From Bohemias Woods and Fields checked this build up a little, the violins walking the tightrope of their exposed fugue with impressive balance .
At the heart of Bělohláveks performance was Tbor, which fizzed with atmosphere, the stop-start tempo expertly handled as it headed inevitably for the battle scene. The reverent chorale detracted from this but only slightly, the audience back in the saddle before having the chance to relax. The resolution of Tbor, the final poem Blank, was the joyous coming together of themes, both inevitable and hugely affirmative, the BBC SO players giving it their all.
While Smetanas epic would have comfortably filled many a programme, we had another weighty symphonic work in the first half, though again not a symphony by name. Dvořáks Cello Concerto, still arguably the most substantial written for the instrument, had many fine things in its interpretation from Jean-Guihen Queyras, but there was a problem in the balance between cello and orchestra, never an easy thing to get right in this piece.
Queyras and Bělohlávek have recorded this work in Czechoslovakia, so have an established view on how it should be performed, but though the solo part was beautifully phrased there were moments when the cellist gave way all too easily to the orchestra, particularly when leader Andrew Haveron contributed his own over projected solo towards the end, louder than the soloist who was playing at the same time. That should not detract, however, from some beautiful interplay between Queyras and the woodwind in the slow movement, nor the incisive and powerful march with which the concertos final movement began.
To hear two of the biggest and best pieces in Czech classical music on the same night was a rare treat indeed and Jir Bělohlávek did everything to ensure the capacity audience had memorable performances to take home with them.