Prague Symphony Orchestra/Heiko Mathias Förster at Cadogan Hall with Igor Tchetuev

Smetana
The Bartered Bride – Overture
Beethoven
Piano Concerto No.4 in G, Op.58
Janáček
Adagio for Orchestra
Dvořák
Symphony No.6 in D, Op.60

Igor Tchetuev (piano)

Prague Symphony Orchestra
Heiko Mathias Förster


Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 16 November, 2012
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

It is sometimes said that there are no bad orchestras, only bad conductors; on this showing one can confidently say that the Prague Symphony Orchestra is very good with a notably full and well-balanced string section, slightly ‘old-world’ woodwind in the best Czech tradition and a distinctly Eastern European-sounding principal horn. One explanation for its overall excellence may lie in past chief conductors, Jiří Bělohlávek from 1977 until 1989 and the underrated Serge Baudo from 2001 to 2006, both of them fine orchestral trainers.

The Overture to The Bartered Bride, which any Czech orchestra can play in its sleep (and frequently do, speeding along rather as Russian orchestras treat the Overture to Ruslan and Ludmilla), was different, a little slower so that the strings could articulate cleanly if less obviously effervescent. Amongst the compensations it was thrilling to hear the double basses so present at the beginning of the coda which, given the extra elbow room, then built to an impressive blaze.

Igor Tchetuev’s unmannered account of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto was similarly satisfying – think of Wilhelm Backhaus’s uncomplicatedly virile way with this music – and it drew a notably well-integrated accompaniment. Seldom can the slow movement’s exchanges between rebarbative strings and soothing piano been heard to greater effect. Overall, this was not perhaps the ultimate in poetry but extremely well played nonetheless and a welcome antidote to those hypersensitive readings which treat the music as though it were bone-china. Suitably, since Tchetuev won the Rubinstein Competition in 1998, there was Chopin by way of an encore, one of the Studies.

Janáček’s Adagio is a rarity. An early work from around 1891, it was exhumed by the great conductor Bretislav Bakala in 1918 from a chest in which the composer kept his compositions. It dates from the same period as the unfinished opera Sárka with which it shares thematic links and may have been an ‘extra’ overture for the stage-work. Whatever the truth Janáček always seems to draw particular intensity from Czech orchestras and this rose to an impassioned climax before ebbing away to a plangent cor anglais solo affectingly played here by Séquardtová Libéna.

As for Dvořák’s Sixth, quite simply this was at least as good as any account I have yet heard, Czech Philharmonic ones included. Heiko Mathias Förster’s tempos were particularly well-chosen, slow enough to allow for lift in the first movement (no exposition repeat, unfortunately), expansive, like a very gentle Sousedska, in the slow movement, exhilarating in the Furiant scherzo (cross-rhythms played to the manner born) and cunningly paced in the finale. The string playing – with antiphonal violins – was gloriously rich and full-blooded throughout, and although the winds and brass may not have the metropolitan sheen of some orchestras, they gave a wonderful window on the soundworld of Old Bohemia, living history in the very best sense and a joy to hear an orchestra playing every note as if its collective life depended on it. There was no encore and none was needed.

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