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Prague Philharmonia

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Mozart, Symphony No. 38 / Voříšek, Symphony in D, Prague Philharmonia, J. Bělohlávek

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Martinů, Violin Concerto, I. Faust, Prague Philharmonia, J. Bělohlávek
Jiří Bělohlávek resigned as director of the Czech Philharmonic in 1992, after he was somewhat unceremoniously ousted from that position in favor of Gerd Albrecht. Soon after, Bělohlávek formed the Prague Philharmonia, a chamber orchestra of forty-some musicians. After serving as music director through the ensemble's first decade, he was succeeded by Kaspar Zehnder and Jakub Hrůša. Now, after a much-admired tenure at the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Jiří Bělohlávek will begin a second term as music director of the Czech Philharmonic, beginning this fall, two decades after his first one. After a guest engagement with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra last weekend, the Czech conductor had another local appearance on Tuesday night, leading the Prague Philharmonia in the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater as part of the Music of Budapest, Prague, and Vienna festival.

The Prague Philharmonia was formed in the image of the 18th-century court orchestra, a mid-sized ensemble, and that era's music -- balanced, diverting, clear -- is their specialty. This came across in the final piece on the program, the Symphony in D Major, op. 24, by Jan Václav Voříšek (1791-1825), which received the most unified, crisp, and pleasing performance of the evening. Voříšek was born in the year that Mozart died, and his life was cut short at around the same length as his Viennese idol. Having worked primarily as imperial court organist, he wrote a pile of liturgical choral and organ music, most of it forgotten. This symphony was his first foray into orchestral music, completed only a few years before the composer died. Bělohlávek and the Prague Philharmonia recorded it a couple years ago, and while it may not be an immortal work, it is worthwhile listening.

Where the violin section had occasionally sounded at odds with one another in the other selections, the intonation slightly askew, in the copious amounts of figuration in this piece they were taut and lean. The outer movements of this symphony sound the most like Haydn and Beethoven, formally not that adventurous, the recapitulation of the first movement sneaking up on the listener, and the fourth brimming ebulliently with wit. The second movement, marked Andante, had the feel of a Beethoven funeral-march slow movement, with an elegiac middle section, followed by a well-manicured but urgent third movement.

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Robert Battey, Prague Philharmonia leaves big impression (Washington Post, March 22)
All in all the playing was quite fine, although there were more problems with lack of ensemble and tuning in the first two pieces. Mozart's overture to Don Giovanni, premiered in Prague in 1787, seethed with anxiety and a sense of impending doom in its slow opening section, with the fast section pushed just a bit too far in tempo. Bělohlávek may not craft interpretations that grab the listener by their originality, but everything has been well thought out and placed properly in terms of balance and shape. The violins clearly knew when they were secondary in importance to the winds, allowing for some clean, unforced playing in the woodwind solos.

Leoš Janáček's Suite for Strings, an early work completed in 1877, was lovingly played, especially the ardent, pining second movement, only violins and violas, and the pleasant country walk of the third. The fifth movement featured a fervent cello solo, in dialogue with the violin section, and a particularly cohesive sixth movement rounded out a well-crafted performance. Two encores, after the Voříšek, showed off the best qualities of the orchestra: a sparkling overture from Rossini's La Scala di Seta, with a workout for the talented principal oboist, and the third movement from Antonín Dvořák's Serenade for Strings.

The focus on Prague continues this week at the Kennedy Center with the final festival concerts from the National Symphony Orchestra: Dvořák's setting of the Stabat mater sequence (March 22 and 24 -- thoughts on that tomorrow) and some more lighter orchestral fare by Dvořák and Janáček (March 23), with pianist Lukáš Vondrácek.

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