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Seen and Heard Concert Review (St. David’s Hall, Cardiff)

(10.05.2007)

The Czech National Symphony Orchestra is a relatively young orchestra. It was founded in 1993 by the trumpeter Jan Hasenöhrl. Libor Pešek took over (from the American Paul Freeman) as Chief Conductor at the beginning of 2007. Insofar as it seemed to have a pretty low average age, the CNSO is a ‘young’ orchestra in another sense too. Under the undemonstrative, but assured, guidance of Libor Pešek they provided the backbone of a pleasant evening’s music making in St. David’s Hall.

Taras Bulba was played with considerable panache, and a sure-footed sense of idiom. In the first movement, ‘The Death of Andri’, Pešek’s precise but unfussy control pf dynamics was impressive, not least in the way he balanced the sound of the organ with that of the orchestra, particularly in the passages of interplay between brass and organ. The yearning love theme of this first movement was expressively presented, but never without a sense of tense foreboding; the trombone theme which heralds the arrival of Taras Bulba typified the power and precision of a fine brass section. In the second movement, ‘The Death of Ostap’, the steady, marching pace which underlay some suitably astringent string playing was well executed, though the moment of Ostap’s death fell short of the violence and power of which the passage is capable.

The contrasts – and paradoxical simultaneities – of mood in the third movement (‘The Prophecy and the Death of Taras Bulba’) were powerfully articulated, a sense of pained happiness succeeded by a stirring conclusion, a death in which defeat was not acknowledged, where the mere ‘fact’ of death was overcome in a grand assertion of self and nation quite without pomposity or jingoism (or whatever the Czech equivalent is). This was a convincing and committed reading. The orchestra were joined by Chloë Hanslip for a performance of Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy. I have to confess that this is a work to which I have never taken – it always strikes me as a piece which grossly inflates its materials, and which goes some way towards smothering some attractive folk materials in plush orchestral writing and a general saccharine wash. This performance didn’t effect any sudden conversion and make me an enthusiast for the work, but I have to say that Chloë Hanslip’s playing as soloist had me wavering more than once. A real sense of song seemed to underlie everything that she did, her beauty of tone and genuine lyricism evident even in some of Bruch’s more flamboyant passages.

The freshness and honesty of her approach did much to compensate for the excessive heaviness of some of the orchestral writing. In the second movement, built on the tune of ‘The Dusty Miller’, the sheer vivacity of her playing made the cod-Scottishness of the bagpipe-like drone in the basses feel less objectionable than it usually does. The double-stopping evidently presented the assured Hanslip with no problems at all. In the third movement, Hanslip’s unaffected eloquence again did much, in the variations on ‘I’m a doun for lack o’Johnnie’, to redeem the sentimentality of Bruch’s treatment of a lovely melody. Some of the darker tones of Hanslip’s playing in the closing passages of the movement werea joy in themselves. In the final movement, Hanslip sailed through the technical challenges and contrived an intimacy and inwardness not always heard in performances of this piece. This was the first time that I had heard Hanslip live, and I was very favourably impressed – even if I could have wished it to have been in music for which I had more sympathy.

Dvorak’s Eighth Symphony, on the other hand, is a work of which I have long been very fond, and any Czech orchestra and conductor worth their salt should surely be able to offer a pretty decent performance of it. This particular combination of orchestra and conductor gave us a reading of real quality. Dvorak’s Eighth is not in the tradition of symphony-as-struggle. This is not a work enacting the resolution of conflicts. One feels, rather, that it is a work expressive of a state of contentment succeeding on some such resolution. The challenge for a conductor is not to let it sound smug or complacent, while not creating merely factitious drama. Pešek was certainly able to do this. In the opening allegro con brio there was a delightful rhythmic lilt, a sense of deep ease and relaxation; yes, the sun did at times disappear behind the clouds (am I alone in finding this is a symphony which seems always to provoke meteorological imagery?), but Pešek resisted any temptation to overdo this. The clouds dispersed as quickly as they arrived. The woodwinds and horns played with great delicacy of feeling in this glowing account of the movement. In the second movement, the adagio, there was a related radiance, a sense of a larger stability of mood sufficient to contain and neutralise any temporary disruptions or disturbances which might come along.

The unifying arch of that stability, holding together the musical fragments of serenade and birdsong, village band and gentle breeze, speaks of a profound contentment, beautifully captured in this performance. The dumka-esque third movement opens in a mood of mild melancholy, but it is a melancholy wilfully indulged in, and it gave way to some passages of pastoral limpidity, spring-like in their sense of burgeoning life, in which the strings of the CNSO were heard to particularly good effect. The finale - allegro, ma non troppo – is perhaps more autumnal; but it is an autumn mood of deep contentment, of harvest gathered and celebrated, rather than of winter anticipated. The movement got a splendidly spacious reading from Pešek, especially of the first theme (the one often described as Elgarian) and there was a joyous exuberance in the hectic folk-dance-like section, with its variations, which subsided into an exquisitely delicate calmness. For all that the work ends in with a further brief eruption of the more hectic music, Pešek’s interpretation seemed to put its emphasis firmly on the symphony’s pastoral serenity; it made for a very satisfying end to the concert.

The Czech National Symphony Orchestra didn’t startle or dazzle; in any case, Pešek is not that kind of conductor. What they did do, was (especially in the Dvorak) play with commitment and real understanding, and put their considerable abilities very much at the service of the music rather than of their own ‘image’. Would that some more famous and longer-established orchestras and conductors could be relied upon to always do the same!

Glyn Pursglove


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