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S & H Concert Review

Smetana, Rodrigo, Holst, Czech National Symphony Orchestra, Carlos Bonell (guitar), Libor Pešek (cond), Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 7th May, 2004 (CT)

Founded as recently as 1993, the Czech National Symphony Orchestra was the brainchild of Jan Hasenöhrl, a trumpet player who has since combined a dual career as principal trumpet in the orchestra as well as Managing Director. Originally falling under the direction of Zdenek Kosler, the orchestra appointed the American Paul Freeman chief conductor in 1996 and this current season sees its first collaboration with Czech compatriot Libor Pešek.

The varied programme on offer in Birmingham (Vltava, Rodrigo’s effervescent Guitar Concerto and The Planets) seems typical of their tour programming in general with a concert of the same week in nearby Warwick University Arts Centre including the diversities of Philip Glass’s Violin Concerto (with soloist Chloë Hanslip) and Resphigi’s The Pines of Rome. Little doubt then that the appeal of the programme played its part in ensuring one of the fullest Symphony Hall audiences I have witnessed for some time.

The undercurrents of Pešek’s Vltava seemed to flow somewhat more quickly than some and whilst it was clear what the conductor wished to achieve, the flutes in the opening bars simply failed to emulate the cool fluidity that Smetana intended. Perhaps the experience of listening to countless concerts by the CBSO in Symphony Hall has moulded my aural perception here but the lack of warmth from the orchestra’s string section struck me immediately upon their first entry and stubbornly refused to leave my consciousness throughout the concert. On the positive side however, Pešek did try to delicately shape the phrasing and although he was not always successful there were some effective moments. The polka like section as the river winds its way past a village wedding showed a considerably greater feeling of character and went some way to resurrect what could otherwise have descended into a disappointingly mediocre performance of a work that the orchestra surely must have in their blood.

The indisposition of Greek guitarist Eleftheria Kotzia meant that Carlos Bonell stepped into the breech at presumably very short notice to perform Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez. It is a work that flows through Bonell’s veins (he was born in London of Spanish parentage) and no doubt many in the audience would have been familiar with his landmark recording of the work for Decca back in the early 1980’s with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and Charles Dutoit. Indeed, the substantial audience clearly enjoyed the experience immensely judging by their ovation and rightly so for Bonell’s performance was undoubtedly the highlight of the night. It was a pity that the opening bars seemed to be marred by some distorted amplification and that the finer detail in the guitar’s quicker passages was not always clearly audible. This problem disappeared in the second movement however, which saw Bonell and the orchestra at their best with playing of fine sensitivity from the soloist well reciprocated in the orchestra. The appealingly good natured final movement was despatched with equal aplomb and one was left with the impression that if the orchestra responded to the conductor as they did to the soloist, then the music making would have been of a consistently higher standard than it ultimately was.

Sadly this was borne out all too clearly in the second half performance of The Planets, which simply failed to ignite from the very opening. Pešek’s over mannered podium style and apparent lack of eye and facial expression resulted in a curiously subdued account, with Mars lacking the simmering menace, inexorable cumulative power and ultimate brutality that are essential to its doom laden inspiration. Even the brass failed to engage in what should be a field day for the section and I found myself willing the trumpets to hammer out the familiar 5/4 rythem following the ominous stillness of the central section. Conversely the solo horn at the opening of Venus showed little of the tranquillity one would hope for at the outset of this movement, being both too loud and possessing an irritating vibrato wholly inappropriate for the stillness of the music. Sadly the whole movement felt unsettled as a result. Mercury and Jupiter fared better and whilst I would have hoped for a slightly subtler winged messenger, Jupiter possessed both spirit and a gratifying string sound in I vow to thee my country. Like Mars, Saturn and Uranus seemed to be restricted by the refusal of the orchestra to come out of their shells and the brass once again would have done better to let their hair down. Indeed, the conductor’s failure to encourage his players to be a little more reckless in the maniacal dance at the centre of Uranus meant that Holst’s fine scoring was simply not given the justice it deserves. The mysteries of Neptune were at least more atmospherically captured in conclusion, aided by the ladies of the City of Birmingham Choir who remained off stage for their entire contribution.Carlos Bonell’s engaging performance of Rodrigo’s Concerto remained the highlight of the night then, whilst regrettably it was the encore of a Dvorak Slavonic Dance that ultimately proved to provide the most characterful and ebullient orchestral playing of the concert.

Christopher Thomas


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