Czech Philharmonic at Royal Academy of Music – Semyon Bychkov conducts Smetana & Dvořák, with Alisa Weilerstein

The Bartered Bride – Overture*
Cello Concerto in B-minor, Op.104
Symphony No.7 in D-minor, Op.70

Alisa Weilerstein (cello)

Czech Philharmonic Orchestra & *Students from the Royal Academy of Music
Semyon Bychkov

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 24 October, 2018
Venue: Duke’s Hall, Royal Academy of Music, London

Rehearsal of the Czech Philharmonic at Royal Academy of Music – Semyon Bychkov conducts Smetana & Dvořák, with Alisa WeilersteinPhotograph: Petr KadlecReviewed from live BBC Radio 3 broadcast… Where shall I roam? / I think I’ll stay at home! – an original Anderson line if more worthy of McGonagall than Wordsworth. Anyway, this concert came to me, and following a heartfelt account of the Czech Republic’s National Anthem – it’s one-hundred years since the country gained independence (the current Prime Minister was in the audience) – and also that belonging to the UK, the Czech Philharmonic brought its distinctive sound and patriotic pride to Duke’s Hall. No better indigenous start than the Overture to Smetana’s Bartered Bride, articulate rather than frenzied from Semyon Bychkov, pointed rather than with details glossed over, the music skipped buoyantly along, and the chosen RAM students were induced as honorary Czechs for seven or so minutes.

The rest was Dvořák. Following a potent introduction Alisa Weilerstein (no stranger to this work or this ensemble), if entering a hairsbreadth prematurely, gave a vivid and robust account of the expansive Cello Concerto, shaping the lyrical music generously, partnered conscientiously and with the utmost experience. Greater amounts of colour from the soloist would have been welcome at times – variegation was more a hallmark of the accompaniment – although her ability to thin the tone and retreat into reverie was affecting, especially so in the slow movement, taken spaciously if with impulsiveness and intense emotions (performers as-one in this) – embracing pastoral woodwinds and soulful horns – beautifully wound-down until clapping broke the mood, although the Finale, however well-integrated its episodes were made, was a little stodgy in faster music if affecting elsewhere, melancholic and momentous come the close.

Rehearsal of the Czech Philharmonic at Royal Academy of Music – Semyon Bychkov conducts Smetana & Dvořák, with Alisa WeilersteinPhotograph: Petr Kadlec

It was only a few weeks ago that Bychkov conducted Dvořák 7 in Berlin (webcasted to the World, one that is getting wider in terms of classical choice). He has the measure of this masterwork’s economy and tautness, and yet the music is so outgoing and impassioned, full of wonderful ideas and Bohemian characteristics, seized upon by the Czech Phil with ardency and many a bucolic reference. If the minority clappers again interfered between movements (it dwindling to an isolated miscreant, following the Scherzo), there is no denying the closeness between Bychkov and the Czechs (their Tchaikovsky series for Decca has started fabulously, ‘Pathétique’ and Manfred so far), made manifest in so many expressive subtleties. My memory of Berlin is that Bychkov was slightly swifter in each movement than in London, whereas the players from Prague were less-plush than their Philharmoniker counterparts, edgier in the Scherzo, for example, Bychkov investigating meaningful possibilities to a greater extent, finding a little more drama, largesse and introspection, not least in the Finale.

If there was to be an encore it could only be a Slavonic Dance, a gracefully turned, occasionally bittersweet Opus 72/2, virtually perfect in realisation; and then a second, a change of geography and tempo, Brahms’s Hungarian Dance No.5 (orchestrated by either Martin Schmeling or Albert Parlow, Brahms scored only three of the twenty-one piano-duet pieces). Bychkov avoided mauling the music and instead created an upbeat heady stew rich in paprika, the Czech Philharmonic crossing the border in style.

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