Czech Philharmonic

Scherzo capriccioso, Op.66
Violin Concerto in A minor, Op.53
Symphony No 9 in E minor, Op.95 (From the New World)

Sarah Chang (violin)

Czech Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Charles Mackerras

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 8 September, 2004
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The last major international orchestra to this year’s Proms (Les Arts Florissants and William Christie notwithstanding) was the Czech Philharmonic. It made its first visit 35 years ago, in 1969, when it gave three concerts, and then (from David Harman’s ever-more convoluted ‘past history’ section in the programme) not seemingly again until 1998 when conducting honours were shared between Libor Pešek and Sir Charles Mackerras.

Mackerras was back for an entirely appropriate all-Dvořák programme in this Dvořák’s centenary year. Indeed it took place on Dvořák’s actual birthday (although the centenary is the anniversary of his death). And no Dvořák celebration could be complete without the Czech Philharmonic. What is even more refreshing is that this was a special concert mounted solely for the Proms. With Mackerras rehearsing Martinů’s The Greek Passion at the Royal Opera House (opening 15 September), the Czech Phil flew to London to rehearse too.

And it proved to be a programme full of resonance. The both back- and forward-looking Scherzo capriccioso, full of Smetana-like nationalism as well as heralding Straussian wit and panache, was a great opener, only the 12th time it has been played at the Proms, despite being championed by Sir Henry Wood, and given here with distinctive, authentic timbres.

Sarah Chang in a dress perhaps more suitable for Sarasate’s Carmen transcription (vibrant red, with a black-lace pattern à la flamenco), was a forceful combatant in the much derided if actually always-infectious Violin Concerto (once heard the finale’s theme is never forgotten). With a slow movement of ultimate poise and delicacy, the outer movements were less happily secure, Chang’s boisterous attack not necessarily in accord with the authentic idiom of the orchestral players. What sounded like a car alarm (but which may have been one of the Hall’s exit alarms, as there seemed to be restriction in allowing people outside at the interval) disrupted the textures, but the performers were unabashed.

A mobile phone chirruping Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake waltz was just as incongruous a disruption at the end of the scherzo in the New World Symphony, but nothing could sway the stamp of authority on this music by conductor and players, given a gloriously unsentimental rendition that made real music at every turn, refreshing the score that other performances cannot reach. One feels for this orchestra, in particular, when promoters ask for popular Dvořák. How many times have they played this symphony? And how many times has Mackerras conducted it? And yet it came alive in a deliciously distinctive way, the commitment by every player visible, from the famous cor anglais solo in the Largo to virtuoso triangle-playing in the scherzo.

The Proms has been lucky in its recent New Worlds. Jansons and the LSO gave a vibrant reading a couple of years back and, earlier, the Leipzig Gewandhaus and Herbert Blomstedt re-forged the work anew for this pair of jaundiced ears.

To that tally can now be added the Czech Philharmonic and Mackerras. Even though he is perhaps best known for his championing of Janáček (without Mackerras the world would probably not be celebrating the 150th-anniversary of Janáček’s birth this year), Mackerras’s credentials as one of the greatest conductors alive were bolstered by this life-enhancing concert. It was rounded off by a, for once wholly appropriate, Slavonic Dance encore, in C (Op.72/7), for which Mackerras seemed to be conducting from a violin part!

London to Prague: come back soon!

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