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Czech Philharmonic Comes to Fairfax

Many thanks to Robert R. Reilly for this review from the GMU Center for the Arts.

available at Amazon
Dvořák, Complete Symphonies and Concertos, Czech Philharmonic, J. Bělohlávek
(Decca, 2014)
At the George Mason University Center for the Arts on Friday evening, November 14, 2014, the Czech Philharmonic, under conductor Jiří Bělohlávek, offered an almost all-Czech program of music during the Washington-area leg of its American tour. The first half of the evening consisted of Leos Janáček’s rhapsody Taras Bulba and Franz Liszt’s second piano concerto (A Major, S. 125), with French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet as soloist. The second half was taken up with Antonin Dvořák’s ninth symphony (E minor, op. 95, B. 178, "From the New World").

This orchestra has been my gold standard in Czech music for many years. I think the last time I heard them live was in a volcanic performance of Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass back in the 1980s in Carnegie Hall. My very favorite recordings of Janáček and Martinů remain those of the Czech Philharmonic, under the late, great conductor Karel Ančerl. I wondered how well served my memories would be by the current iteration of this orchestra, under a conductor who brought with him great expectations, having just been awarded this year’s Antonín Dvořák Prize (and last heard here with the Prague Philharmonia in 2012).

The answer is well served, indeed. From the beginning of the Janáček, it was clear that Bělohlávek deserves his fine reputation in the Czech repertory, particularly with the works of Smetana, Dvořák, Janáček, Suk, and Martinů. He and the Czech Philharmonic are native to the wildness of Janáček’s eccentric music, its orchestral brilliance, and its use of punchy motifs and dramatic abbreviation. Together, they brought Taras Bulba vividly to life, with all its wild swagger, clashing swords, pounding hooves, swirling dances, and poignant melodies. The piece was pulsing with life, with finely articulated playing from the winds and brass, and a very strong, surging string section. An early entry of the chimes seemed to stick out a little too far from the orchestral fabric, but that could be due to the acoustics of the room. In any case, every instrument is answering every other instrument in this vital portrayal of its subject matter, and these forces caught the urgent sense of communication.

I confess that Franz Liszt is not one of my favorite composers, except for his magnificent oratorio Christus. In any case, it was a great pleasure to hear Thibaudet’s superb pianism in the second concerto. I could not imagine a more limpid touch in the opening Adagio or a stronger forte in the soon-to-follow Allegro. The work itself has a wild, almost improvisatory character that, to me, verges on hodgepodge. It certainly contains a lot of ear candy and has dazzling moments in the mercurial flow of marches, dances, and whatever else Liszt chooses to throw in. Because of the quality of playing by both the orchestra and soloist, this display piece made for an enjoyable romp.

Other Articles:

James R. Oestreich, Regardless of Offstage Worries, Onstage It’s All Artistry (New York Times, November 17)

Eric C. Simpson, Home dishes prove ideal menu for Czech Philharmonic (New York Classical Review, November 17)

Tom Huizenga, Played by Czech Philharmonic, 1890s Dvorak sounds fresh as ever (Washington Post, November 17)

Zachary Woolfe, A Maestro Returns, First There, Now Here (New York Times, November 14)
I admit that it was the Janáček that I principally came to hear. I am not sure I would have struggled out on a cold night to listen to another performance of the hugely popular Dvořák ninth. However, the Czech Philharmonic played with such warmth, power, and precision that my reservations at hearing this piece again were soon swept away.

The reaction of the audience was so enthusiastic that Bělohlávek offered two encores -- a scintillating rendition of Smetana’s overture to The Bartered Bride, and then a sweet Valse Triste by Oskar Nedbal (1874–1930), a Dvořák student, who later became conductor of the Czech Philharmonic. Bělohlávek conducted effectively with an economy of motion -- no histrionics for him. Whatever he is feeling he lets the music express. He and his forces produced a wonderfully rich sound without sacrificing clarity.

Bělohlávek and the Czech Philharmonic will perform Smetana’s Vltava, a symphonic poem from Ma Vlast, and Dvořák’s ninth symphony this evening at Washington National Cathedral (November 17, 7 pm) in celebration of the 25th Anniversary of the Velvet Revolution and the legacy of Václav Havel.

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