Is the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra entering a new era ? In London at the start of a new international tour, Semyon Bychkov, new Chief Conductor, led the Czech Philharmonic in a concert featuring Smetana and Dvořák, with Alisa Weilerstein. This concert was very high profile indeed, attended by the great and the good, as if it were a state occasion, markingb the 100th anniversary of Independence. And indeed it was, since the Czech Philharmonic is unique, with a distinctive persona. Part of the reason it is so unusual is because its traditions are rooted in Czech culture, from which Czech music has grown, as if language translates into music. The orchestra doesn't frequently tour : if you want to hear them other than on recordings or broadcast, you need to go to the Rudolfinium, and absorb the whole context. This, of course, isn't always practical, and in a digital age, any orchestra's potential audience is world-wide. So it's logical that the Czech Philharmonic should be reaching out. Before Bychkov was appointed last year, the announcement stated that the choice would depend on "publiku, nahrávacím společnostem, zahraničním pořadatelům i k ministerstvu kultury".ie the public, recording companies, foreign organizations and The Ministry of Culture. Perfectly valid, since Czech culture and music is a vital part of world heritage. The question is how this will affect the orchestra's core values and artistic soul. Whatever model the Czech Philharmonic adopts for its outreach should, accordingly, be individual, rather than borrowing from what might work for other orchestras. What we love about the Czech Philharmonic is the very fact that it is not polished or celebrity-focussed. The market should rise to its standards, not the other way around.
Britain embraced Czech music very early on. In 1884, Dvořák himself conducted his Stabat Mater and Symphony no 6 at the Three Choirs Festival. Janáček visited London in 1926, and re-dedicated his Sinfonietta in honour of Rosa Newmarch. Only ten years later Vítězslava Kaprálová, aged only 22, was invited to London to conduct her own Military Sinfonietta with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, a work which pays direct homage to Janáček, at a time when Czechoslovakia was being threatened by the Nazi regime. The bonds between Czechslovakia and British culture grow deep. So it was a surprise that the start of this tour should take place in the Duke's Hall at the Royal Academy of Music, with a capacity of only 350, rather than, say, the Royal Festival Hall which seats 3000. In the US, the Czech Phil is playing Carnegie Hall. Nonetheless it was an opportunity for students of the RAM to join the Czech Phil on stage and play together : symbolic and educational value, reflecting Bychkov's position as Professor of Conducting, which he takes so seriously that he's conducted the RAM orchestra at the RFH. Thus a suitably festive Overture to Bedřich Smetana's Bartered Bride joyously free.
Bychkov began the Czech Philharmonic's 2018-2019 season in Prague with Antonín Dvořák's Symphony no 7 in D minor op 70, paired with Luciano Berio's Sinfonia but for the start of this tour, complemented it with Dvořák's Cello Concerto in B minor, Op 104 with soloist Alisa Weilerstein, who shot to fame when Daniel Barenboim chose her when he returned to Elgar's Cello Concerto, so closely connected to Jacqueline du Pré. She's more mature now, and brings that greater refinement to Dvořák : well shaped legato, at turns sensuous and demure, well integrated with the orchestra around her. The orchestra, though, stole the show, playing with the distinctive timbre that is their trademark : horns that call and breathe without being brassy, strings that swell and vibrate with genuine emotion, winds that sing as freshly as forces of Nature. The Adagio seemed to glow, the restraint of the cello enriched by the fullness in the orchestra, but the Finale impressed because it was so thoughtfully shaped.
A rewarding Dvořák Symphony no 7 in D minor op 70. Again, the characteristic richness and depth of the Czech Philharmoniuc came to the fore : the idiom is in their DNA so to speak. Thoughg this is sometimes called the "London" symphony its impulses are altogether more personal. Interpretation grows through an understanding of the composer and his work as a whole. Thus the Allegro maestoso unfolded purposefully, its stately progress defined with assurance. Dark as this symphony may be, it's clear-sighted, the destination never in doubt. A heartfelt coda. The Hussite hymn theme echoed in the second movement was subtle. It doesn't need over-statement, but it informs the Scherzo that follows the lyrical moments between. The motif that resembles dance wasn't frivolous, but an acknowledgement of the rondo-like tightness with which the symphony as a whole is constructed. A very strong Finale, arrived at through an understanding of the structural logic.