Prom 58: 3rd September 2001 – Czech Philharmonic

Cinderella (excerpts)
Gliere, arr. Mikhail Nakariakov
Flugelhorn Concerto (from Horn Concerto in B flat)
Symphony No 7 in D minor

Sergei Nakariakov (flugelhorn)

Czech Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 3 September, 2001
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

We are being spoiled by the Czech Philharmonic. London has already seen the Orchestra this season, with current Chief Conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy, for two Barbican concerts; their two Proms (this one and No.60) marked this partnership’s first appearance at the summer jamboree.There is one difference this time – they are playing some Czech repertoire; this first concert ended with Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony.

One of the reasons for choosing Ashkenazy as Chief Conductor (he took up his position 3½ years ago) was to move away from specifically Czech repertoire when on tour. Ashkenazy’s repertoire is wide and catholic, a fact that may have been partially disguised in London with the Philharmonia and Royal Philharmonic; during his time with the Deutsches Symhonie-Orchester he conducted a huge amount of contemporary music, including premières by Kancheli and Messiaen (he gave the German première of Éclairs sur l’au-delà for example). There seems little in the mainstream repertoire that Ashkenazy avoids and it was good that Russian and French works were to the fore at these Proms.

Ashkenazy puts the music first. There is no more generous and warmer-hearted musician, and his lack of guile in a world of flash-harry conducting egotists is so refreshing.There is no playing to the audience with Ashkenazy; he freely admits that his conducting style is somewhat unorthodox but as long as it serves the music, so what? His baton seems rather stiff in his right hand – more of an extension of the arm than an entity in itself – and, with both arms regularly hoisted high over his head, he sometimes looks like a demented marionette, but the orchestra seem perfectly at home.

There will be no surprise then, from such lengthy preamble, that I enjoyed this concert.It started in a rather subdued manner with a series of eight excerpts from Prokofiev’s ’other’ popular ballet score, Cinderella. She eventually gets the chance to go to the Prince’s ball but then, after bewitching the Prince and dancing the night away, she forgets her midnight curfew before her splendid ball-gown turns back into her dusty work clothes. Less well known than Romeo and Juliet and without the big exciting numbers, Ashkenazy’s selection built cumulatively to the clock chiming midnight, the angry ticking emulated by a percussionist beating time on a wood block.

We stayed in Russia for the concertante work, but it was not quite what we expected from the Proms Prospectus, which had promised a trumpet arrangement of Gliere’s concerto for coloratura soprano. 24-year-old Russian, Sergei Nakariakov, played his father’s arrangement. The programme alluded to this being the arrangement’s first live performance. Nakariakov looks younger than his years; his flugelhorn looked rather out-sized for his slender frame. But he can certainly play! While this particular work is probably not the best to show off his virtuoso reputation, the flugelhorn’s distinctive timbre – more blowsy with a harder attack than the French horn – was probably an asset in this generally unassuming and less than memorable concerto. Less than memorable, except for that the opening phrase starts like Gilbert and Sullivan’s ’Bow down you lower middle classes’ sung by the incoming Peers in Iolanthe. How those Peers would look askance at Nakariakov’s constant expulsion of spit from the bowels of his instrument when not playing!

For an encore, Nakariakov came back with trumpet in hand for a virtuosic transcription of Paganini’s variations on ’Carnival of Venice’. The look on the orchestral trumpeters’ faces was a picture!

Ashkenazy conducted a hugely satisfying Dvořák Seventh Symphony. It is commonly regarded as the most Brahmsian of Dvořák’s symphonies, but Ashkenazy found something of Rachmaninov’s melancholy in it. The Orchestra could probably play this work blindfolded, but this was far removed from an autopilot performance. The Orchestra is in rude health – characterful wind and brass soloists and an enviable string base all displayed to best advantage in such core repertoire. They may like to prove their spurs in non-Czech repertoire, but there is no ensemble better placed to champion the cause of Bohemian music – a performance that will live long in the memory.

  • BBC Radio 3 rebroadcast Tuesday, 11 September, at 2 o’clock

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