Symphony No.8 in B minor, D759 (Unfinished)
Violin Concerto in A, K219
Symphony No.8 in G, Op.88
Nicola Benedetti (violin)
Czech National Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey
Reviewed: 20 October, 2011
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London
It is sometimes said that an orchestra is as good as its conductor. However on this occasion there was little doubt that the veteran Libor Pešek (soon to be 80), an unobtrusive master of his craft, deserved a better band. Compared with some of the lesser-known ensembles that have taken part in the previous Zurich International Concert Series, the rough and ready playing of the Czech National Symphony Orchestra hardly merited the description ‘International’.
With more polished execution Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’ could have been highly impressive. With an unusually flowing speed for the opening Allegro moderato (exposition repeat taken), tensions simmering just below the surface, and an avoidance of overblown rhetoric yet with considerable Heft at the climaxes plus a willingness to expand at significant moments, this was interpretatively impressive. As it was, despite the reduced numbers of strings, it really cried out for greater care over dynamics – for instance the famous cello tune was hardly pp. Similarly, despite affecting contributions from the oboe and clarinet, the slow movement – once again cannily paced to allow for full articulation of the climaxes – became something of a trudge.
Nicola Benedetti’s account of Mozart’s A major Violin Concerto found her oddly over-emphatic throughout the opening movement which was taken at a helter-skelter tempo allowing for little in the way of finesse and saddled with one of the longest cadenzas imaginable. Mozartean poise was in short supply and intonation frequently suffered. The magical veiled Adagio was delivered for the most part at a throbbing forte and only in the ‘Turkish’ finale did one finally sense a genuine conjunction of performer and music. There was an encore, solo Bach.
Far better was to come with Dvořák’s sunniest symphony. With minimal pauses between movements this was a forward-moving performance which knew exactly where it was going. Pešek adopted a flowing tempo for the work’s opening, eschewing that over-emphatic delivery which mars so many performances and easing into the main body of the movement without fuss. Best of all were the two middle movements, the Adagio graced by some characterful clarinet playing from Lubomir Legemza and Dusan Mihaley and notably delicate descending string scales. The Allegretto grazioso was a lilting Slavonic Dance in all but name, its trio especially heartfelt. The finale too had its moments – the lead into the rambunctious coda where time stands still for a moment really tugged at the heartstrings – but it was also subject to some old-fashioned quirks, to wit the drastic slamming on of brakes at the movement’s climax.
For all its undoubted flaws – some highly approximate brass and woodwind chording chief amongst them – this was a real performance. Heard in a relatively small hall with an orchestra probably quite close in size to those of the composer’s day, inner string balances worked particularly well and, despite the homespun quality of the wind playing, it all took one back to the tangy soundworld of the ‘old’ Czech Philharmonic, as did the affectionate encore, the penultimate Slavonic Dance from Opus 72.