Philharmonia Orchestra/Belohlavek
Dvorák/Janácek Series Part One (20 January)

Piano Concerto No.23 in A, K488
Symphony No.9 in E minor, Op.95 (From the New World)

Zoltan Kocsis (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Jiri Belohlavek

Reviewed by: Neil Evans

Reviewed: 20 January, 2004
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

He might not be the starriest conductor around but Jiri Belohlavek is certainly one of the most perceptive. Anyone expecting the Philharmonia Orchestra at this Royal Festival Hall to give only a well-played account of a well-loved warhorse was in for a bit of a shock.

Launching the Philharmonia’s Dvorák-Janácek series – both composers have anniversaries this year – the Czech conductor gave us a Dvorák New World which was certainly well played – and as moving and rousing as you could possibly want. But it was also very understated, elegantly phrased and incredibly detailed in a way that stopped you in your tracks.

Of course Belohlavek knows this music inside out and his reputation as a master of his homeland’s music is assured. But, ironically, what came across in this performance was not the emphasis on either the composer’s perceived New World (America, that is), or Bohemian rhythms, or the nationalistictug-at-the-heart-strings fervour. Rather, this was an interpretation much more closely focused on what Dvorák had to contribute to the romantic symphonic tradition. The programmatic elements and big tunes were somehow secondary as the listener was made more aware of the architecture of the piece and how well crafted a symphony this is.

As to the playing, dynamic control was admirable and the chamber music delicacy with which the front desk of strings accompanied Jane Marshall’s glorious cor anglais playing was inspired ensemble playing. With a polished sound throughout, the brass was perhaps at its most effective in the closing bars of the finale in which Belohlavek carefully accented the yearning phrases.

He was equally subtle in the dynamics of Janácek’s Sinfonietta, which opened the concert. Again, the Philharmonia’s brass excelled with its richness of sound and clarity of articulation. Belohlavek’s control of balance in the final crescendo in which the brass play in canon with strings and woodwind was masterful. Next to a work so seemingly dense with ideas as the Dvorák, however, Janácek’s popular work was a put a little in the shade. Much as I love its effects I warm more to the way Janácek uses his wonderful brass writing to more dramatic and presaging effect to open his opera The Makropulos Case written at around the same time. Still, the Sinfonietta made an excellent opener to a series that has certainly started auspiciously.

The Czech elements framed a performance of Mozart’s A major concerto which was cleanly played by Zoltan Kocsis but it could have done with a little more of the spine-tingle factor especially in the beautiful slow movement. Also, orchestra and conductor didn’t quite achieve the rhythmic drive or overall shaping of this work that they did so overwhelmingly in the Dvorák.

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