Czech Philharmonic/Gardiner

Carnival Overture, Op.92
Fantaisies symphoniques (Symphony No.6)
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.16
The Ballad of Blaník
Symphony No.8 in G, Op.88

Lars Vogt (piano)

Czech Philhamonic Orchestra
Sir John Eliot Gardiner

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 29 August, 2010
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Sir John Eliot Gardiner. Phoptograph: Sheila Rock. ©DeccaOn paper this triple-decker concert, two of Dvořák’s most popular works bookending Martinů’s Sixth Symphony and Janáček’s The Ballad of Blaník, offered an enticing prospect, especially with the Czech Philharmonic. In the event it was Grieg’s Piano Concerto which stole the show.

Carnival – one of the cycle of three overtures which Dvořák wrote shortly before he sailed for America in 1892 (the others are In Nature’s Realm and Othello) – can scarcely fail to get any concert off to a fizzing feel-good start, but this was merely hard-driven, hedonistic and devoid of joy. Jana Brozková’s flute solo in the gentle slow section radiated exactly what was missing elsewhere, warmth and heart.

Martinů’s Sixth Symphony was written as one of 15 works commissioned for the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s 75th-anniversary season in 1955-6. To quote Martinů: “There is one reason for this work which is clear and certain to me; I wished to write something for Charles Munch … I like his spontaneous approach … where the music takes shape in a free way, flowing freely … an almost imperceptible slowing down or rushing up gives the melody a sudden life”. Munch repaid the compliment with magnificent readings of this work, not only his Boston recording, but also with a searing performance with the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra at the 1967 Prague Spring Festival, not the tidiest but one which almost more than any other catches the conductor ‘on the wing’ at his most inspirational.

Unfortunately John Eliot Gardiner – who likes to dot Is and cross Ts – was miscast in this work. With funereal tempos much of it was simply too static as though he were reluctant to let the orchestra off the leash, but more fundamentally there was little sense of danger, of the music developing its natural freewheeling momentum. W. B. Yeats’s line, “Things fall apart. The centre will not hold” might have been written to describe this work. In Gardiner’s hands this was closely observed Martinů, dutiful and carefully controlled undoubtedly, but plodding through the finale’s jazzy syncopations so that when the gong stroke finally shatters the music’s momentum the work simply limped to its close instead of being left suspended breathless in the air.

Lars Vogt Redemption came with Lars Vogt’s glorious reading of Grieg’s Piano Concerto. This was about as far as one could imagine from those steel-tipped readings by aspiring virtuoso, not that it was in any way deficient in power at moments such as the first-movement cadenza, but for the most part there was delicacy and understatement, Grieg with a Schumannesque touch rather than treating the work as proto Liszt. A reduced orchestra provided the most perfectly synchronised and solicitous of partnerships, and in the slow movement there was a wonderfully sensitive and secure horn solo from Ondrej Vrabec. Vogt gave us Chopin’s C sharp minor (Op. posth.) Nocturne as an encore, magically voiced.

Janáček’s The Ballad of Blaník avoids the obvious. Blaník Hill figures largely in Czech mythology. Under it King Wenceslas (Vaclav) and his Knights sleep until they arise to defeat threatening invaders. This at least is the version as we know it from Smetana’s Má vlast and from Dvořák’s Hussite Overture. Janáček’s version imagines the legend through the eyes of Jíra who, walking on the mountain on Good Friday, sees an Elysian vision of the Knights with their weapons turned into ploughshares. Much of the fascination of Janáček’s music lies in its abrupt juxtapositions of angular motifs and soaring lyricism. Try to beautify it or shoehorn its discontinuities into conventional shape – as happened here – loses it much of its potency and immediacy.

Dvořák 8 was sadly routine. The Czech Philharmonic is a great orchestras but one would have been hard-put to recognise that here, things not helped by Gardiner’s extremes of tempo in the outer movements, very slow followed by extremely fast in both cases and leaving little room for anything like clear articulation. There were indications of former glories – the characterfully blended woodwind in the slow movement, the deliciously light descending string scales in the same movement and the lilting bittersweet Allegretto grazioso – but for the most part this was poorly played. Inevitably, there was a Slavonic Dance (the first of the Opus 46 set) as an encore.

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