Home dishes prove ideal menu for Czech Philharmonic
International orchestras love to present their national repertoire at Carnegie Hall, and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra largely stuck to that motivation in their Sunday afternoon program, a brief detour through Hungary notwithstanding. The rewards were evident, with first-rate performances of Janáček and that greatest of Czech warhorses, Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9.
Janáček’s Taras Bulba opened with a cooing English horn solo by Vojtech Jouza, a premonition of the spell he would later weave in the Dvořák. The Czech strings, under the baton of Jiří Bělohlávek, were irresistible, playing with radiant crackle in “The Death of Andrei” and flowing honey in “The Death of Ostap.”
They turned icy and ethereal for the final movement, “The Prophecy and Death of Taras Bulba.” The narrative of the piece was strong under Bělohlávek’s direction, and his distillation of Janáček’s unique language often achieving clarity and clangor at the same time.
Jean-Yves Thibaudet joined for Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 2. He showed off a gorgeous touch at the beginning with soft, gossamer arpeggios, and in most of his playing there was a rolling shimmer. The brief duet between the piano and the principal cello, Václav Petr, was stunningly tender.
But Thibaudet’s playing left some things to be desired. Quick figures sounded less than organic, and less than precise. And, animated and stormy though he is in appearance (tousled hair and popped collar notwithstanding), he never mustered the muscle to give us a really Lisztian sound. This was in large part the fault of a piano that sounded relatively wimpy for this purpose—muted in tone and better suited to Mozart.
For an encore, Thibaudet offered Richard Strauss’s Waltz in G-flat Major, an arrangement from Schubert’s Kupelwieser-Walzer, soothing and uncomplicated.
The choice of Dvořák’s Ninth to headline the Czech Philharmonic’s program seemed an obvious one. (Is there any Czech work of art, musical, visual, or literary, more beloved in this country?) Yet after hearing this performance, it’s hard to fault the musicians for wanting to show off. This was almost the Platonic Ideal of a Dvořák Ninth.
In some ways, that’s not a great thing. When performing a warhorse like this one, there’s a delicate balance to be struck between making the music sound “fresh” and keeping the interpretation within reasonable boundaries. This performance, avoiding the temptation to get too cute or too clever, never particularly surprised.
But it was an Ideal also in the sense that, hearing this symphony as it was played on Sunday, one got the sense that this is precisely what the music needs to sound like—in terms of texture, size, tone, and the rest.
The first movement in particular showed that this orchestra has a singular grasp of this symphony’s character. The mix of sound that Bělohlávek drew from the orchestra was fabulous, a rich, vibrant blend that never became soupy. There was, here and throughout the symphony, a sense of broad scale—Dvořák’s vast, breathtaking landscapes could hardly have been more vivid.
Bělohlávek led the scherzo at a deliberate pace, but even at a moderate tempo, managed to sustain the music’s energy. As the opening raindrops evolved into a torrent, he remained a picture of physical economy. His arm gestures are minute, his body almost still. In fact, you hardly notice him, which is refreshing in an era of theatrical conducting. Rolling energy and cascades of sound made the finale thrilling in spite of a poorly tuned final chord.
No movement was more powerful than the Largo. The familiar English horn solo here is bound to be a high point of any performance of this piece, but Jouza’s rendition was on another plane, lovingly wafted into the hall. There was not a hint of a blemish in his tone, and his dynamics were subtle but effective. Layered over a velvet bed of strings, the effect was breathtaking.
Two encores pushed the concert over the two-hour mark: First, Bedrych Smetana’s overture to The Bartered Bride, a lively romp in perpetual motion, giggled and gurgled. Oskar Nedbal’s Valse triste followed, a melancholy but satisfying close to the afternoon.