fri 04/12/2020

Má Vlast, Czech Philharmonic, Bychkov online review – finest silk for Velvet Revolution anniversary concert | reviews, news & interviews

Má Vlast, Czech Philharmonic, Bychkov online review – finest silk for Velvet Revolution anniversary concert

Má Vlast, Czech Philharmonic, Bychkov online review – finest silk for Velvet Revolution anniversary concert

Smetana's national epic comes up fresh and meaningful in a miraculous online happening

Conflict and resolution: Semyon Bychkov conducts a Czech Philharmonic Orchestra on top formThis and the first image below by Petra Hajská

It was Mahler as conductor who made the famous declaration that “Tradition ist Schlamperei” (sloppiness), or something along those lines.

It was Mahler as conductor who made the famous declaration that “Tradition ist Schlamperei” (sloppiness), or something along those lines. Where it becomes the opposite of sloppiness is when a national treasure in the lifeblood of Czech musicians over 140 years meets a conductor of absolute rigour, prepared to question himself and the way his (or her) orchestra plays it, but always with reference to the original score. So it was with the Czech Philharmonic and their then-new Russian-born Principal Conductor Semyon Bychkov last autumn, when they performed Smetana’s Má vlast (My Homeland) before a packed audience in Prague's beautiful if sometimes over-reverberant Rudolfinum (I was there; it was glorious).

They were to have taken it one step further at the traditional opening of the Prague Spring Festival in May; impossible. And this performance on the 31st anniversary of Czechia’s Velvet Revolution should also have been before an audience; similarly out of the question owing to a dramatic rise in levels of Covid-19 infection the country had managed to avoid earlier in the year. But what lives in the response of players to conductor and his to them is still remarkable. Bychkov told me last year that they would probably record it together only after further airings in 2022, his 70th birthday year; but I’d hasten to get hold of this performance, sound-engineered beautifully to solve any problems inherent in the Rudolfinum, if it came out on CD.

Like the supernatural army that appears to a shepherd in the legend of Blaník hill – subject of the last of Smetana’s six tone-poems based on history, myth and natural landscapes – certain performances and even a withholding have been a numinous source of justifiable national pride: the one conducted by Václav Talich in 1939, followed by the spontaneous singing of the national anthem; the performance that the musicians refused to give on 17 November 1989 in response to repressive measures before the Velvet Revolution had its way and a proper celebration happened on the 24th; former exile Rafael Kubelík returning to conduct an unforgettable interpretation at the 1990 Spring Festival with Václav Havel present. If anything, the playing, especially from the exquisite woodwind, has become ever more refined; the sheer sonic beauty of this performance could hardly be surpassed. It's frankly miraculous that it happened at all under present circumstances; all players were tested and able to participate. (Pictured below: Bychkov studying the score in rehearsal)Semyon Bychkov studying the score of Ma vlast in rehearsalThis Má vlast seems to me even more fluid and caressed than the interpretation I heard a year ago; the glorious, tear-jerking theme of the opening Vyšehrad (the castle south of Prague), inimitably introduced by harpists Jana Boušková and Barbara Pazourová, shines from within. Perhaps there’s already an inclination to will it to be so, but I doubt if any other orchestra in the world could play this so naturally and so movingly. Vltava (aka the River Moldau) flows even more limpidly than before, with bewitching flute playing and a phosphorescent evening scene with nymphs, leading to a wonderful transition back to the river’s onward movement. Strings sing like human voices – always the aim, of course – in the operatic drama of warrior maiden Šárka’s revenge on a male army, even if I’ve heard wilder lashings as the final onslaught begins, but Bychkov unleashes full excitement in the last bars.

By the end of Šárka, we’ve reached the midway point, and it’s impressive to see a second roster of wind and brass players replace some of the ones who’ve participated in the first three tone-poems: I was especially delighted to see the arrival of oboist Jana Brožková, who led the rustic woodwind idyll at the heart of Blánik so exquisitely last year; her sensitivity is equal here. Listening through headphones didn’t give me the same deep sound I heard then – nothing online can compare to the live onrush of wild beauty at the start of From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields. But the radical modernism of the ‘”lost in thickets” fugue which follows, saved by another of Smetana’s great patriotic melodies, is still riveting, and it’s admirable the way the camerawork gets into the very wood of the violins. (Pictured below: two horns and one rose in a still from the Czech television live broadcast)Horns in Czech Philharmonic Ma VlastSophistication like this sometimes tempers any putative wildness, but that’s often a virtue when Smetana so often goes at it with piccolo, cymbals and triangle; you don’t feel the overkill here. And Bychkov finds delicious humour in the perky march which takes us out of battlefield aggression. Total vigilance is apparent not only in his conducting but also in the physical intensity and freedom of the players, with the example given by leaders/concertmasters Josef Špaček and Jan Mráček – both fine soloists in their own right. Quibbles about the filming – I know the lighting is an attempt to reproduce the colours of the Czech flag, but the Rudolfinum looks better in its natural state, and there’s brief pixilation on each of the many changes of camera angle – pale into insignificance given the depth and breadth of the performance. You may hear a different interpretation, but probably not a better, unless Bychkov and the players excel themselves in 2022. Catch it while you can.

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