Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto no.1 in F sharp minor Op.1 (1891, rev.1917)
Smetana Má Vlast (1874-82)
Yuja Wang (piano, above), Czech Philharmonic Orchestra / Semyon Bychkov
Barbican Hall, London
Tuesday 15 March 2022
Written by Ben Hogwood Photo credits Petr Kadlec
This was the first visit by an overseas orchestra to the Barbican since the coronavirus pandemic began, one of many reasons for the buzz of anticipation accompanying the arrival of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and their principal conductor Semyon Bychkov.
Their two-night residency began with the first published notes from Rachmaninoff, a call to arms signalling intent at the start of his Piano Concerto no.1. With the athletic piano playing of Yuja Wang, this was a sure way of getting the concert off to a high octane start. Hers was a virtuoso performance, seizing the music by the scruff of the neck early on but also bringing impressive clarity to her melodic phrasing, so that among even the more congested orchestral writing her line could be clearly heard.
The balance between soloist and orchestra was ideal throughout and proved especially satisfying in the Andante cantabile second movement, where the volume dipped to a mere whisper. Is it too fanciful to suggest that audience coughing is now much less since we returned to live music? Certainly, the Barbican was almost completely silent in response to Wang’s absorbing and feather-light playing, and her dovetailing with the eloquent bassoon of Ondřej Šindelář was a delight.
The finale returned us to the raw power of the first movement, but both Wang and Bychkov ensured the melodies still held sway, the latter marshalling the orchestra with effortless command but keeping a tight ensemble. Wang’s fingers and hands were a blur at times, as she somehow brought the most complicated passagework under her wings without missing a beat or a phrase. Her dedication was wholehearted and her love for the piece was clearly shared by the orchestra, who were smiling readily. Rachmaninov’s first and underplayed utterance was well served indeed.
After the interval Bychkov (above), born in Russia, spoke eloquently about the current situation with his home country, dedicating the performance of Smetana’s Má Vlast to the people of Ukraine. He noted the unplanned but happy coincidence brought by programming one of Romantic music’s most heartfelt patriotic statements on this night. Written to bring pride and inspiration to the Czech people, Smetana’s rousing set of six symphonic poems could not have wished for a more fitting performance here.
The lofty construction of Vyšehrad was led off with expansive harps tracing the building’s lofty lines, the music growing in stature as the rest of the orchestra joined. Bychkov’s pacing in this noble movement was ideal, a powerfully wrought performance with tasteful phrasing. The same could certainly be said for Vltava, whose depiction of the river bubbling up was wonderfully exuberant. The wind section clearly enjoyed their vivid profile of the waters and their surrounds, with no obvious pause for breath as the current gained in power. There was a persuasive lilt to the rhythmic profile of the music too. This was felt especially in the peasant dance section, Bychkov encouraging the strings to dig their bows in, dragging the beat tastefully. It was glorious fun.
If anything, this performance grew stronger and leaner as it progressed. Šárka drew sharp parallels with Liszt, whose symphonic poems Smetana was looking to emulate, telling the story of the female warrior with sharp rhythmic snaps and the tightest possible ensemble. From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields, by contrast, was a glorious celebration of the countryside, its fugal episodes bouncing off each other before the colourful village festival took hold. By this point the orchestra had unexpectedly carried out a series of substitutions, the wind section effectively replaced halfway through. It says so much for their function as a team that the overall sound was not affected.
Both wind sections stood out in this performance, stylish and authentic, but the finer details to this interpretation impressed greatly. The percussion, for instance, took such great care with their cymbal and triangle contributions, the shading just right and complementing Smetana’s fulsome melodic writing, made all the remarkable with the reminder that he had lost his hearing by this point.
The final pairing of Tábor and Blaník proved every bit as dramatic as Šárka, the orchestral sound given a renewed heft through powerful strings, rolling timpani and fulsome brass. There was a stern countenance to Tábor’s opening pages, and the Hussite tune dominating these two poems had a lasting resolve which carried unmistakable parallels to the current situation. The final pages of Blaník were thrilling, recalling Vyšehrad in blazing colour before Bychkov signed off emphatically.
There were no encores in the concert, and nor were they needed, for this was a wholly memorable occasion, a true privilege to say, ‘I was there’.
You can listen to the repertoire in this concert by using the Spotify playlist below, which includes the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra‘s recent recording of Má vlast, made with their previous and sadly missed principal conductor Jiří Bělohlávek: