S&H Festival Review

Prague Spring 2000 Elgar/Payne Symphony No 3 Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Ashkenazy Dvorak Symphony No 7, Brno Philharmonic Orchestra/Ceccato (DW)

Having never been to Prague before, I was not quite prepared either for the beauty of the city itself and the huge variety of music on offer. Quite apart from the main Prague Spring itself, one is unable to walk more than a few yards without being enticed into attending a concert in one of the many striking churches, marionette performances of Mozart opera's, open air extravaganzas of one sort or another - in fact too many events for a short visit ! - for this reason I restrict my comments to two particular concerts at the main festival.

Both concerts took place in the splendid Smetana Hall, which is as striking inside as out, and has a suprisingly helpful acoustic. A bust of the great Czech composer who lends his name to the hall glowers down from below the organ. The elegant programme book for the festival had interesting and well written articles as well as a CD containing examples of the work of leading living Czech composer's - how many English festivals could or would run to that ?

So to the music - the first concert was given by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra no less, under their Principal Conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy. The tiny tone poem ""Kikimora" by Liadov opened the programme, beautifully played, the orchestra and Ashkenazy revelling in the exotic harmonies and delicate instrumentation. Clearly a not too distant relation of later Rimsky-Korsakov operas - hearing music like this still makes us rather regeret that Liadov was so lazy, but there again we would not have had "The Firebird" (this commission was origianlly given to Liadov who failed to make any progress - Diaghilev had the comission taken away and given to Stravinsky).

Words such as delicate and subtle are not ones that come to mind when considering Christina Ortiz and her rendition of Prokofiev's 3rd Piano Concerto which followed. Indeed, she attacked the piano with such ferocity that she broke a string, which proceeded to ping until Ashkenazy, to much applause, rolled up his sleeve and performed surgery by pulling the offending string out. The instrument then more or less gave up and limped to the end of the last movement getting more and more out of tune. The encore, by a Brazilian composer whose name I did not catch, was at best unecessary, after such a frankly ear splitting performance, and at worst painful on such a wrecked instrument.

The second half of the concert saw the Czech premiere of the much hyped Elgar/Payne Symphony No3, which seems now to be rather more popular than the first two - a lamentable state of affairs. Whatever feelings one might  have regarding the morals of this completion, Mr Payne's work is remarkable and he would have had every reason to be pleased with this performance. With the exception of problems with some of the very high violin writing in the first movement, the orchestra played wonderfully - the grinding opening fifths had a Hindemithian vigour, the Allegretto sounded as if the Czech Phil had been playing English light music all their collective lives and the brooding Adagio was deeply felt, with some fine solo contributions. Ashkenazy's account made more sense to the piece than most others I have heard.

 He asked afterwards if it was "English enough" - well, it wasn't paticularly - perhaps that is why it was so successful ! - he has by all accounts said that he is rather over-awed by the first two Elgar symphonies - I wish he would change his mind.

The Elgar performance would rather suggest that the cliche - that English orchestras are the only ones that can play Elgar, and Czech orchestras are the only ones that can play Dvorak - is somewhat exaggerated. However, hearing the Brno Philharmonic Orchestra play Dvorak's Symphony no 7 the following evening, one might be forgiven for thinking that there was at least a grain of truth in the statement. Barely 40 years old, this orchestra (based incidentally in the city where Janacek lived for much of his life) has an impressive list of guest conductors and, with 115 members, must be one of the largest orchestra's in Europe. Their present Principal Director is the Italian, Aldo Ceccato, who quite clearly thinks as much of himself as of his orchestra. Indeed his method of taking a bow at the end of the performance has to be seen to be believed - it rather reminded me of that wonderful cartoon in which Tom & Jerry complete with each other for the control of the baton.

That aside, the Dvorak was quite breathtaking from every point of view, not least the Poco Adagio - surely one of Dvorak's most inspired movements - I don't think I ever heard this played so beautifully. The standard of playing was pretty much consistent for the whole evening - Janacek's demanding tone poem "The Fiddler's Child" opening the concert and Martinu's First Cello Concerto coming in the middle. Martinu is sometimes the most irritating of composer's - the first two movements of this substantial work make one think that it might be a masterpiece - the lines are less cluttered than can sometimes be the case, the melodies are at once memorable, the structure and harmony carefully fashioned and the cello sings its heart out - the fine young cellist Michaela Fukacova made the strongest possible case for the work, having a fine big tone but enormous sensitivity too. Then Martinu seems to get tired of the whole thing and throws the piece away in a short note spinning finale in which the poor soloist scrubs away double stopping all over the place to no great effect. Such a let down - but at least there was some compensation in the performance and the sight of the elegant Maestro Ceccato being upstaged by such a striking soloist !

David Wordsworth

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