Scherzo capriccioso, Op.66
Violin Concerto in A minor, Op.53
Symphony No 9 in E minor, Op.95 (From the New World)
Sarah Chang (violin)
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Charles Mackerras
Royal Albert Hall, London
Wednesday, September 08, 2004
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|The last major international orchestra to this years Proms (Les Arts Florissants and William Christie notwithstanding) was the Czech Philharmonic. It made its first visit 35 years ago, in 1969, when it gave three concerts, and then (from David Harmans ever-more convoluted past history section in the programme) not seemingly again until 1998 when conducting honours were shared between Libor Peek and Sir Charles Mackerras.
Mackerras was back for an entirely appropriate all-Dvořák programme in this Dvořáks centenary year. Indeed it took place on Dvořáks actual birthday (although the centenary is the anniversary of his death). And no Dvořák celebration could be complete without the Czech Philharmonic. What is even more refreshing is that this was a special concert mounted solely for the Proms. With Mackerras rehearsing Martinůs The Greek Passion at the Royal Opera House (opening 15 September), the Czech Phil flew to London to rehearse too.
And it proved to be a programme full of resonance. The both back- and forward-looking Scherzo capriccioso, full of Smetana-like nationalism as well as heralding Straussian wit and panache, was a great opener, only the 12th time it has been played at the Proms, despite being championed by Sir Henry Wood, and given here with distinctive, authentic timbres.
Sarah Chang in a dress perhaps more suitable for Sarasates Carmen transcription (vibrant red, with a black-lace pattern ŕ la flamenco), was a forceful combatant in the much derided if actually always-infectious Violin Concerto (once heard the finales theme is never forgotten). With a slow movement of ultimate poise and delicacy, the outer movements were less happily secure, Changs boisterous attack not necessarily in accord with the authentic idiom of the orchestral players. What sounded like a car alarm (but which may have been one of the Halls exit alarms, as there seemed to be restriction in allowing people outside at the interval) disrupted the textures, but the performers were unabashed.
A mobile phone chirruping Tchaikovskys Swan Lake waltz was just as incongruous a disruption at the end of the scherzo in the New World Symphony, but nothing could sway the stamp of authority on this music by conductor and players, given a gloriously unsentimental rendition that made real music at every turn, refreshing the score that other performances cannot reach. One feels for this orchestra, in particular, when promoters ask for popular Dvořák. How many times have they played this symphony? And how many times has Mackerras conducted it? And yet it came alive in a deliciously distinctive way, the commitment by every player visible, from the famous cor anglais solo in the Largo to virtuoso triangle-playing in the scherzo.
The Proms has been lucky in its recent New Worlds. Jansons and the LSO gave a vibrant reading a couple of years back and, earlier, the Leipzig Gewandhaus and Herbert Blomstedt re-forged the work anew for this pair of jaundiced ears.
To that tally can now be added the Czech Philharmonic and Mackerras. Even though he is perhaps best known for his championing of Janáček (without Mackerras the world would probably not be celebrating the 150th-anniversary of Janáčeks birth this year), Mackerrass credentials as one of the greatest conductors alive were bolstered by this life-enhancing concert. It was rounded off by a, for once wholly appropriate, Slavonic Dance encore, in C (Op.72/7), for which Mackerras seemed to be conducting from a violin part!
London to Prague: come back soon!