The Noonday Witch, Op.108
Cello Concerto in B minor, Op.104
Symphony No.7 in D minor, Op.70
Steven Isserlis (cello)
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey
Reviewed: 31 October, 2009
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London
The Czech Philharmonic Orchestra has passed through some difficult times over the last twenty years but remains one of the world’s great orchestras, so it was a particular pleasure to welcome these musicians in a Dvořák programme to which they are supremely attuned; in 1896 Dvořák himself conducted the Czech Philharmonic’s first concert.
Any doubts one might have had at the prospect of hearing his most Brahmsian symphony in the confines of Cadogan Hall were dispelled at the outset. The string sections, always one of the orchestra’s glories, play with a finesse and care for balance akin to the finest string quartets whilst the winds (which in the 1970s could sound distinctly rustic) are now equal in security to the best whilst still retaining some of those timbres which we think of as quintessentially Czech.
Jakub Hrůša, aged 28, has recently been named as Music Director and Chief Conductor of the Prague Philharmonia (Cadogan Hall managed to print the tickets for this concert as being by the Czech Philharmonia) as well as Music Director of Glyndebourne Touring Opera from 2010. On the evidence of this concert he deserves to go right to the top – his conducting has a thoughtful maturity which would be remarkable in someone twice his age. Music has always been taken seriously in the Czech Republic and Hrůša has clearly enjoyed the most thorough of groundings. Totally devoid of any hint of flashiness, something which may count against him in today’s celebrity-obsessed world, he has that indefinable ability to engage with an orchestra and obtain total commitment.
Appropriately since it was Halloween, the opening work whether by design or happenstance was The Noonday Witch. Based on a story by Erben about a mother who threatens her recalcitrant child with the appearance of the Witch only to have her appear on the dot of midday, it is one of those tales beloved of 19th-century composers and elicited from Dvořák some memorably spooky music. Vaclav Tálich made a famous recording of the work in the early 1950s but it is rarely heard in the flesh so it was doubly welcome on this occasion, especially in a performance as refined as this, notable for the most perfectly achieved string pianissimos.
Dvořák’s Cello Concerto is anything but rarely heard, but it seems to work particularly well in smaller halls (I say this having heard excellent performances from Heinrich Schiff and Jiří Bělohlávek in Basel’s Kursaal and from Rostropovich and Paul Sacher in Zurich’s Tonhalle). Despite his sometimes flamboyant exterior Steven Isserlis is a superb chamber musician, witness his Festivals at Wigmore Hall, and his account of the Dvořák was distinctive in the subtlety of his interplay with the wind soloists, notably the excellent first flute Andrea Pazderová. Seldom has one heard so poetic a slow movement or the work’s magnificent epilogue held on so fine a thread. Occasionally one sensed the need for greater power in the grander moments of the first movement but with the most solicitous of accompaniment (and a gloriously sensitive account of the first-movement horn solo from Jan Vobořil) this was a wholly treasurable account which allowed soloist and orchestra equal billing.
The Seventh Symphony, arguably Dvořák’s finest symphonic creation and spoken of by Tovey in the same breath as Brahms’s symphonies and Schubert’s ‘Great’ C major, has suffered slightly by comparison with its two successors and in the wrong hands its first movement can hang fire. Unlike the Eighth, which is an almost sure-fire success, the Seventh demands a level of input from both conductor and orchestra which it seldom receives; in my experience, Szell, Monteux and Boult (all with the LSO) – each a great Brahmsian – gave superb performances of this work.
Hrůša is still young but this was undoubtedly the most comprehensively satisfying reading I have heard since Boult and succeeded in rekindling all the deep love one feels for the work. There was a teeming inner life rather reminiscent of those Samuel Palmer paintings where, if one looks closely, there is a mass of detail not immediately apparent to the casual observer. What a difference too it makes to have an orchestra which has the notes so thoroughly in its being. Questions of balance, dovetailing, and line, were effortlessly resolved. Significant moments such as the accelerandos at the close of the first and third movements were perfectly timed, not rushed, and then rammed home, whilst the finale had a visceral excitement which belied the frequency with which these players must have tackled this work.
Despite Cadogan Hall’s restricted size, there was never an ugly sound throughout this concert, an object-lesson in how to cope with a difficult acoustic. There was no encore and none was needed.