Czech Philharmonic/Ashkenazy – 12 November

Hussite Overture, Op.67
Slavonic Rhapsody, Op.45/3
The Cunning Little Vixen – Suite
Piano Concerto in G

Hélène Grimaud (piano)

Czech Philharmonic Orchestra
Vladimir Ashkenazy

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 12 November, 2002
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Although it is common to speak of the Czech Philharmonic as having enjoyed its heyday under the likes of Václav Talich and Karel Ancerl, this first of two concerts under current Chief Conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy confirmed that, while the orchestral timbre may have lost something of its Central European pungency, the warmth and flexibility of ensemble is scarcely less impressive.

No doubt either that the orchestra still responds to its native composers with a readiness born of intuition. The suite from Janacek’s Cunning Little Vixen – essentially the First Act de-vocalised by Talich in 1937 and revised by Václav Smetácek in 1965 – was delivered with evident affection, opening out wonderfully in the vixen’s dream-sequence. Ashkenazy commitment was undoubted, though a rather too sweeping gesture at the end of the suite’s first section goaded the audience into premature applause.

Ravel’s G major Piano Concerto must now be the most performed in the twentieth-century repertoire, with new interpretations hard to come by. While Hélène Grimaud’s was not revelatory as such, it impressed through its wide range of expression and risk-taking in what is a deceptively ’classical’ work. The sweep of the opening ’Allegramente’ was tangible, though Grimaud’s rhythmic elasticity in the bluesy second theme caused some problems of ensemble co-ordination. Moreover, the lengthy opening solo of the ’Adagio assai’ was over-wrought, as though expression were being willed out of the music rather than allowed to surface naturally. The woodwind playing that followed, however, was judged to a nicety – and, in the ’Presto’ finale, Grimaud’s playful virtuosity scintillated.

Dvořák almost inevitably features in a programme by a visiting Czech orchestra, but the works chosen were hardly familiar to British audiences. The Third Slavonic Rhapsody, its opening harp flourish surely a nod in the direction of Smetana’s Vysehrad, caused something of a sensation at its Viennese premiere in 1879, though its skilful but protracted medley of folk-like melodies and dances is hardly Dvořák at his most inspired. Ashkenazy despatched it with gusto, however, then rounded off the concert with the much finer Hussite Overture – written for the reopening of Prague’s National Theatre in 1883. As might be expected from a work written just prior to the Seventh Symphony, this is Dvořák at his most resourceful and keenly-argued; the Hussite chorale employed as a motivic component until the closing pages, when it caps the work in full splendour. The Czech Philharmonic gave their collective all – though, at half an hour, this was a (rare) second half that cried out for an encore: maybe a Slavonic Dance or two? None was forthcoming, however – maybe at the orchestra’s second concert tonight, the 13th.

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