Czech Mates

Sonata vespertina
L’Olimpiade – Che non mi disse un dì!
Vado, ma dove?, K583
Alma grande e nobil core, K578
Symphony No.38 in D, K504 (Prague)
Double Concerto for two string orchestras, piano and timpani
Melancholic Songs of Love

Magdalena Kožená (mezzo-soprano)

Marcel Javorček (piano) & Ivan Hoznedr (timpani)

Prague Philharmonia
Jiří Bělohlávek

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 21 July, 2004
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Founded by Jiří Bělohlávek just ten years ago, the Prague Philharmonia has quickly established itself as a chamber orchestra of excellence, its musicians displaying commitment, skill and joy. This was certainly true in the encore, a scintillating account of the overture to Rossini’s “The Italian Girl in Algiers” which was nearly started without its pair of clarinettists, and which delighted the ear with the quietest of pizzicatos, a suave oboe solo, thrilling crescendos, and superbly timed sorties.

Quite a contrast with the opening item, the stately ceremony of Pavel Josef Vejvanovský’s Sonata (the composer born around 1633), which proved a short but imposing entrée distinguished by some fine trumpet and trombone playing, and which allowed the Royal Albert Hall organ (its surround plagued by mauve-coloured infestation!) to display its restrained side. Among the festive sounds was that of an essential baroque fashion-accessory – the ringing tone of a mobile phone (and not for the last time during this concert). A further example of regrettable audience behaviour came with the disruptive applause after the rapt Largo of the Martinů, which was grossly insensitive to thoughtful reflection and the work’s overall span.

The performance itself of this impressive if troubled 1938 work could have been more searing and impassioned (although the orchestra’s modest forces did lose out somewhat to the Albert Hall’s expanse), although it would be difficult to imagine a reading more appreciative of the music’s craft, its intense outpouring and its rhythmic tenacity. The rich polyphony of the string writing was made admirably clear by the two string groups, and the pianist and timpanist – not soloists in the conventional sense – made distinct yet integrated contributions; Javorček’s solos in the slow movement hung in the air with significance.

This concert of Czech music through the ages juxtaposed with Mozart – specifically a symphony of his first played in Prague (the city also saw the premiere of “Don Giovanni”) – included appearances by Magdalena Kožená, who was in ravishing voice: her poised agility, creamy-rich tones, and her natural musicianship and communication were something to treasure. The fiery Mysliveček aria (he was a contemporary of Mozart) was brought off with telling precision by singer and players and she made the most of two rather-ordinary Mozart creations that were intended as insertions into other composers’ operas.

Overshadowing such decoration was the seraphic beauty of Vítĕzslav Novák’s Melancholic Songs of Love, written in 1906 – Novák died in 1949, and is a composer well worth exploring – beautifully but not cosmetically sung by Kožená, Novák’s pellucid textures very sensitively outlined by the orchestra. These lovely songs emerged as the concert’s highlight in terms of discovery.

The Prague Symphony closed the (advertised) concert. Those that left when Kožená had finished missed a sweet-toned, impeccably detailed and balanced account (although the timpani could have been less polite) that did nonetheless fall into a groove in the outer movements (the main Allegro of the first being too fast). However, the central Andante was most expressively turned and ideally judged, even down to the ‘short’ grace notes.

Throughout the evening Jiří Bělohlávek’s discreet and attentive conducting was a musical plus-point. I urgently recommend the Prague Philharmonia’s recent CD collaboration with Ivan Moravec (link below) and look forward to hearing this splendid orchestra again very soon.

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