fri 21/06/2024

theartsdesk in Prague: Czech Spring with Smetana and Martinů | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk in Prague: Czech Spring with Smetana and Martinů

theartsdesk in Prague: Czech Spring with Smetana and Martinů

The native greats illuminated in their homeland's glorious capital

Paavo Järvi and the Czech Philharmonic after their performance of Smetana's 'Ma vlast'This and other opening concert image by Ivan Malý for Pražské jaro

On the itinerary of musical tourists around Europe, the opening of the Prague Spring Festival comes a close third to the Vienna Philharmonic’s New Year's Day Concert and the Bayreuth experience. That said, Smetana's Má vlast (My Homeland) – the immoveable opener – is more of an acquired taste than Johann Strauss or Wagner.

Too often Má vlast's six-tone poems have been served up as slabs of a national monument, with only two – Vltava (otherwise Germanised as Die Moldau) and From Bohemia's Woods and Fields – offering guaranteed bliss. This year Estonian Paavo Järvi gave the Czech Philharmonic a refresher course, and it was one of the most electrifying and ravishingly beautiful concerts I've ever heard.

Smetana in the Narodni DomAt least one Czech critic was outraged at the lack of solemnity, interpreted as disrespect to Smetana as founding father of Czech music (pictured right on the roundel of the organ in the Obecní dům) – though grandeur there certainly was – and chauvinism led him to report that the only thing worse than an American conductor daring to open the national treasure-trove was an Estonian-American. Of course this has happened before: Paavo's father Neeme conducted the Prague Symphony Orchestra in the Spring Festival opener – which the PSO occasionally shares with the Czech Phil – back in 1994.

Over the past two decades the son has opened up to his father's characteristics of freedom and atmosphere. He conducted a wild account of the third Smetana tone-poem, Šárka, at the Pärnu Festival last year; he made sense of the overall shape by making Vltava bubble out of the proud opener, and by keeping narrative tension going between the conflicts of Tábor and Blaník, hurtling on to a storming final victory.

Harps for Ma VlastFurther credit rests with the Czech Philharmonic's innate sophisticated warmth and the surprising results in the Smetana Hall of the Obecní dům, which translates rather prosaically as "Municipal House" but has to be the most lavish concert hall anywhere in the world, a riot of art nouveau excess. The essential shape of the auditorium is shoebox. That ought to work well in terms of acoustics, but the orchestral space extends some way back behind a proscenium arch, like the high altar of a church, and I'm told that when the hall is less than full, acoustics can be problematical. Not so for Má vlast; as harps (pictured above) passed on the tuneful baton to softest strings in the 'prelude', Vyšehrad, the halo cast a special magic. Wind were clear and present, and some of the horn effects – not least the distant call in Šárka – paid tribute to the wonderful perspectives of the place.

Rudolfinum PragueThe usual home to the Czech Philharmonic is the Rudolfinum by the Vltava, almost as glorious in its late 19th-century neoclassicism (pictured right). The chance to spend time there came with the piano finals of the Prague Spring International Music Competition. Three of the four finalists were Korean, an extraordinary 36 out of 66 competitors. Why? This question came up, too, in the Carl Nielsen International Violin Competition, also won (deservedly) by a Korean. One perhaps fatuous answer is that prizewinners get out of National Service, but whatever the case the training must be phenomenal.

Of course it was disappointing that no one chose the Dvořák Piano Concerto out of the list of finale warhorses; that would have completed the chance to hear all four Czech masters – the others, of course, being Smetana, Janáček and Martinů – during my time in Prague. The choice both here and in earlier rounds didn’t venture into the 20th or 21st century, with the exception of a token commission. Wouldn't one of the five Martinů concertos have made an interesting challenge? Anyway, we got Beethoven's Fourth twice (fine) and Chopin's First (not so good, at least from a soloist-and-orchestra point of view).

Jinhyung Park in Prague Spring Competition finalStandards were exceptionally high; any one of the four performances with the Prague Symphony Orchestra under the watchful eye of Petr Altrichter would have been welcome in a standard concert season. Of the two Koreans who opted for the Beethoven, clearly Jun Ho Kim had more dynamic and expressive range than Kyuho Han. In the Chopin, Jiunhyung Park (the winner, pictured above by Zdeněk Chrapek for Pražské jaro) found more pearly romanticism than Czech entrant Marek Kozák, though he applied more natural effervescenece to the finale, which deserved its standing ovation from the patriotic Czechs in an audience of all ages. I’d have given first prize to Han rather than Park, but apart from that reversal, the jury’s choices seemed fair enough.

The prizewinning ceremony took place the following morning in an impressive room of the Senate in the Town Hall. So many speeches, so many special gifts from sponsors and others; was this a hangover from the old Communist days? Seeing a trumpet, I was hoping we’d hear some music from the winner of that competition, Brit Huw Morgan, but it only turned out to be yet another prize. Still, it was good to see inside the civic quarters.

Narodni Divadlo That evening, it was back to the Národní divadlo, the National Theatre where 26 years ago I heard a fair few Czech operas – best of all Dvořák’s The Devil and Kate – at the cost of about £1 per stalls seat. The worst excesses of carpetbagging tourism then – constant audience chatter, everyone taking video films – have been abolished here, if nowhere else in the tackily overlain beauties of old Prague, with the merger of the three main theatres where opera performances take place and a different pricing system. A few more people in the audience wouldn’t have gone amiss for the performance of Martinů’s masterly 1930s dream-opera Juliette in a production by director-designer Zuzana Gilhuus which opened earlier this year.

It culminated in the most memorable staging of the terrifying last act I’ve seen (out of three productions – David Pountney’s Opera North staging, which came to Prague, and Richard Jones’s typically off-kilter version for English National Opera). Michel, the protagonist, has been lost in dreamworld pursuing the nameless woman whose voice he once heard coming from an open window. Act Three is set in the Bureau of Dreams where he takes her name from the heroine of others’ fantasies – Juliette – and has to decide whether to spend "real" life in a padded cell and go back to his alternative world or leave like nearly everyone else.

Scene from Juliette

Pountney had brought into the picture the horror of refugees fleeing with suitcases; Gilhuus brands the horror of the fina situation on the mind with a black hole centre stage, its dreamers only dimly seen. The papyrus-forest-on-neon-box of Act One and the woods revealed underneath it in Act Two (pictured above) are turned on their sides and split to left and right. That leaves a a black hole centre stage, its dreamers only dimly seen. Here Martinů matches the terrible beauty of Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle, and the National Theatre company met the challenge with seemingly effortless dedication in this tricky score. The orchestra conducted by Jaroslav Kyzlink had been warming up for half an hour before curtain rise, and simply glowed; Jaroslav Březina as Michel is one of those many Czech tenors with clarion tone – and, of course, an easy grasp of the language to make it the conversational thing of wonder it is.

That extra dimension to seeing Czech opera in Prague was even more marked in an extra-festival performance two nights later of Janáček’s From the House of the Dead, with a superlative all-male singing cast – even the Tatar boy Alyosha, usually a trousers role for mezzo or soprano, was transferred to a tenor to point up a homoerotic relationship with political prisoner Goryanchikov. This time the orchestra sounded even more extraordinarily incandescent under Robert Jindra in the most outlandish of all operatic scores, but the production was more questionable.

Scene from From the House of the Dead

It’s good to see Prague embracing Regietheater – the last performance of the opera I saw here was penny-plain, and not easily comprehensible without English supertitles, which helpfully exist now – and director Daniel Špinar knows how to block the massive male chorus, soloists and movement group on an effectively lit stage. But how can the release of Goryanchikov with its exultant cries of “freedom” and “the eagle is king” be moving in a scene which transports us from the prison camp of the first two acts to a concert performed around a piano – the “eagle”, doubled in suspension above – by stiff, unsmiling men in dinner jackets? The uniform intensity of the singing and playing was badly undercut here.

Musically, though, this was a fine climax to a Czech trilogy, much enriched between operas by a visit to Martinů’s home town of Polička and the room above the belfry of the main church tower – 192 steps up – where he was born and spent the first 12 years of his life. But that’s another story. I chose the Czech route in the festival programme, but Prague Spring in its 70th year is very international indeed. It was hard if not difficult, for instance, to choose Juliette over Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin in Bruckner’s Fifth on the same evening. Other visitors up to this closing weekend have come from Italy, Spain, Lithuania, China, Singapore and the UK.

Festival director Roman Bělor, a wise and wry man who ran the Prague Symphony Orchestra before he took over at the helm of Prague Spring in 2001, knows how to balance audience expectations and high artistic values; his observations over coffee at the Café Slavia on paying attention to seventysomething attendees, much younger in spirit than their counterparts of 20 or so years ago, were typically interesting. This is clearly a big festival which can survive and adapt – but in terms of native resources both in repertoire and performers, it’s punching well above the Czech Republic’s weight as a small country.

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