S&H Concert review

PROM 58: Prokofiev, Glière & Dvorák, Sergei Nakariakov (flugelhorn), Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Ashkanazy, RAH, 3 September 2001 (CC)

The Czech Philharmonic Orchestra brings with it a tremendous cultural weight. It gave its first performance in January 1896, conducted by Dvorák, no less. It boasts an impressive roster of conductors associated with it, including Václav Talich, Rafael Kubelík and Václav Neumann. Vladimir Ashkenazy took up the post of Chief Conductor in 1998, and it fell to him to bring the orchestra to the Proms this year.

The Czech Philharmonic's sound is a joy: the strings are beautifully full-toned, the wind bucolic and characterful and the brass play with the subtlest use of vibrato and the creamiest of sounds.

Ashkenazy's own complete recording of Prokofiev's Cinderella (Decca Double 455 349-2) is well regarded. His affinity with the score was obvious in the selection of eight numbers, making a persuasive case for seeing this music on an equal footing with the much more famous Romeo and Juliet: perhaps the seasonal theme prevents this?. Either way, the Czech Philharmonic seemed to enjoy the challenges, and Ashkenazy's detailed knowledge of the score enabled phrases to be dovetailed perfectly. The contributions of the (two) solo violins were excellent, with perfectly placed high harmonics. The only problem came through no fault of the orchestra or conductor: the Albert Hall's resonant acoustics meant that some of the spikier moments so characteristic of this composer were lost.

Reinhold Glière taught Prokofiev, and this was (presumably) the logical link which bound the first half together. His Horn Concerto only gets rare outings (I heard it live several years ago at a Hallé concert, for example), but here it made an even rarer appearance featuring a flugelhorn. The soloist was the miraculously talented Sergei Nakariakov, and the arrangement was made by his father, Mikhail Nakariakov. Whilst the ranges of the French horn and flugelhorn may be analogous, the flugelhorn lacks the variety of timbre available to the French horn, something Nakariakov, despite his virtuosity, could not hide. Despite keeping his vibrato to a minimum, the overall impression given was still in the vicinity of Besses-o'-th'-Barn rather than Moscow.

This concerto is an unassuming work, approachable at all times: for example, the first movement's best moment comes with its march-theme. There was a heart-felt contribution from the principal oboe in the second movement, but the highlight lay with the superbly even-textures brass chorale of the finale.

Nakariakov is obviously a man with a mission to enlarge his repertoire (apparently he plays Tchaikovsky's Rococo Variations, although thankfully not as an encore). However, it was not the flugelhorn I wanted to hear more of. Despite reservations as to how appropriate the transcription of the Glière is, there is no doubt that it would certainly be good to hear more of this composer's music.

The music of Dvorák must be the Czech Philharmonic's bread-and-butter. They certainly sounded on home territory in the Seventh Symphony. Solo contributions were delightful throughout: so good, in fact, that the horn melody in the slow movement left one wishing that the orchestra's principal had been the soloist in the first half. Ashkenazy took a dramatic line in the first movement, but perhaps took this a little too far (it appeared a bit breathless and hard-driven at times). The orchestra were in their element in the Scherzo (perhaps just a little more swagger?) and also in the finale.

Finally, an apology from Ashkenazy for the lack of an encore (there was a later concert that evening). No apology necessary: the orchestra had already given many moments to warm one's heart already.


Colin Clarke

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