In Appreciation – Libor Pešek

by Ben Hogwood

Today we learned of the sad news that conductor Libor Pešek has died at the age of 89.

A tribute to him has been posted on social media by his management company IMG, while the artist page they held for him contains details on his conducting career.

Libor Pešek made some particularly fine recordings with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra when Virgin Classics was in the ascendancy in the 1990s. They include a cycle of the symphonies of Dvořák but also a rather wonderful disc introducing us to the music of Vítězslav Novák, and in particular his Slovak Suite. The recording became extremely popular with Classic FM listeners, and has led to something of a revival for the composer.

The playlist enclosed here is almost exclusively of Czech music, including works by Suk and Smetana, but we also include a nod to some extremely fine recordings of British music the conductor made, notably Britten’s Young Person’s Guide.

Any listener to classical music from the 1980s onwards will surely have encountered Libor Pešek’s art, and we can appreciate it here:

In concert – Yuja Wang, Czech Philharmonic Orchestra / Semyon Bychkov: Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto no.1 & Smetana Má Vlast

yuja-wang

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:

Arcana at the opera: Libuše (first UK staging) – University College Opera @ Bloomsbury Theatre

Smetana Libuše

Libretto by Josef Wenzig, translated by Ervin Špindler. Sung in Czech with English surtitles

Libuše – Kirstin Sharpin (soprano)
Přemysl – Robert Davies (baritone)
Krasava – Eve Daniell (soprano)
Lutobor – John Mackenzie (baritone)
Chrudoš – James Quilligan (baritone)
St’áhlav – Ben Harding (tenor)
Radmilla – Ananya Samuel (mezzo-soprano)
Radovan – William Bennett (baritone)

Chorus and Orchestra of University College London / Charles Peebles

Cecilia Stinton (director),Holly Muir (designer), Alex Forey (lighting designer), Ester Rudhart (choreographer)

Bloomsbury Theatre, London

Monday 18 March 2019

Review by Richard Whitehouse

Back in its home venue following several years’ renovation and what could more appropriate for University College Opera than this first UK staging of Libuše, Smetana‘s ‘festival opera’ whose premiere the composer held back for almost a decade until the opening of Prague’s National Theatre in 1881? Indeed, other than a semi-staged presentation at the Edinburgh Festival two decades ago, this monument to national aspiration had never even been performed in the UK – hence making University College Opera’s production a further feather in the cap of this enterprising organisation.

An opera so centred on Czech legend was never likely to ‘translate’ easily in cultural terms. Cecilia Stinton‘s situating of it in a “futuristic City of London” is a plausible concept which rather misfires: the interplay between Medieval myth and post-modern setting rarely seems more than a hopeful compromise; in addition, the functional quality of Holly Muir‘s designs and Alex Forey’s effective if relatively unadventurous lighting tends to reinforced the static nature of Smetana’s music, though Ester Rudhart‘s choreography certainly enlivened the crowd scenes.

The cast, however, could hardly be faulted for insight or commitment. Kirstin Sharpin found imperiousness but also humanity in the title-role; a rounded and empathetic portrayal abetted by her vocal eloquence – not least in the prophecy of fraught yet glorious times ahead for the Czech nation that forms an apotheosis of truly Wagnerian grandeur. As her consort Přemysl, Robert Davies ably conveyed the wisdom and humanity of one whose idyllic rural existence (here made into an anarcho-socialist holiday camp) is unaffected by his sudden regal status.

As Krasava, Eve Daniell gave a magnetic assumption of one whose feminine guile provokes the initial crisis yet also eventually aids reconciliation through her strength of character. John Mackenzie brought real authority to Lutobor, with James Quilligan and Ben Harding equally inside their respectively anguished and bemused roles as the brothers Chrudoš and St’áhlav. Ananya Samuel conveyed the right degree of agitation as their put-upon sister Radmilla, and William Bennett made the most of his brief though strategic cameo as the envoy Radovan.

A further enhancement was the decision to sing this opera in Czech – which may have caused passing uncertainty for the UCL Symphony Chorus, though without detriment to their energy or zeal. A pity the UCL Symphony Orchestra’s playing was sometimes undermined by issues of intonation or ensemble – but this was, after all, the first night and any such failings should hopefully be ironed out over the remaining three performances. Charles Peebles conducted with a tangible conviction right across this opulent and sprawling canvas.

All in all, this was a flawed but capable and, certainly in vocal terms, distinguished rendering of an opera that is unlikely to receive further staging in the UK any time soon. Just over three decades after its memorable production of Smetana’s The Devil’s Wall, University College Opera has once again come to the aid of a composer whose contribution to mid-nineteenth century opera rarely receives its due. In vindicating the viability of Libuše as a theatrical and, above all, musical entity, it could not have launched this new phase of its existence more potently.

There are two more opportunities to see Libuše, on Friday 22 and Saturday 23 March. For more information head to the University College website

The only available recording of Libuše, conducted by František Jílek, can be heard on Spotify below:

Tasmin Little, BBC Symphony Orchestra & Edward Gardner at the Barbican – Janáček, Smetana, Szymanowski & Eötvös

Ed Gardner
BBC Symphony Orchestra / Edward Gardner (above) (photo © Benjamin Ealovega)

Barbican Hall, Saturday January 7, 2017

Janáček Jealousy

Smetana Ma vlast: Vltava; Šarka

Szymanowski Violin Concerto No.2 (soloist – Tasmin Little)

Eötvös The Gliding of the Eagle in the Skies [UK premiere]

Janáček Taras Bulba

L-R Leoš Janáček (1854-1928); Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884); Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937); Péter Eötvös (b1944)

Listen to the BBC broadcast here

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Edward Gardner returned to the BBC Symphony for this diverse if not wholly successful programme, which opened with the ultimate in terse curtain-raisers. Intended then abandoned as the overture to his opera Jenůfa, Janáček’s Jealousy (1895) has latterly enjoyed a peripheral place in the repertoire. Heard here in the late Charles Mackerras’s realization of the original version, it made for a vivid impression – not least when its alternation between strident brass gestures and eloquent string writing unerringly evokes Sibelius during much the same period.

Next came the second and third instalments from Smetana’s cycle of symphonic portraits, Ma vlast. The performance of Vltava (1874) was a disappointment – its constituent sections rather failing to cohere, with Gardner making little of the visceral ‘St John’s Rapids’ episode and the apotheosis doddering along at a jog-trot.

Šarka (1875) fared better – Gardner exerting a tight grip over its scenario of female retribution, with felicitous playing from solo clarinet and horn prior to the fateful close. In context, these pieces sounded curiously adrift, suggesting that a different selection (Šarka, then From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields maybe?) might have proved more effective. Even better to opt for one of those early ‘Gothenburg’ symphonic poems that are rarely revived, of which Wallenstein’s Camp would ideally have complemented the Janáček in the second half.

Tasmin Little

Tasmin Little

Time was when Szymanowski’s Second Violin Concerto (1933) existed in the shadow of its predecessor, but this last major work by the composer enjoys increasingly regular revival – its amalgam of luscious textures and folk-inflected harmonies underpinned by a formal cohesion where elements of sonata and rondo forms link hands over a powerful cadenza (by the initial soloist Paweł Kochánski) that Tasmin Little rendered with aplomb.Elsewhere her intonation occasionally faltered as she strove for parity against often dense orchestral writing, though a cumulative impact was rarely less than evident on the way to the affirmative closing pages.

After the interval, a welcome first hearing in the UK for a recent orchestral piece by Peter Eötvös. Written for the Basque National Orchestra, The Gliding of the Eagle in the Skies (2012) utilizes not only the quirky rhythmical profile of that region’s traditional music but also its indigenous percussion – two cajóns situated near the front of the orchestra goading the music on with their distinctive timbre. The piece follows an eventful (and suspenseful) trajectory in which the imagery conveyed by the title is amply though subtly conveyed; the typically stratified textures making possible the luminous final stages then an ending which, not for the first time with this composer, suggests a possible continuation just out of reach.

Later Janáček fairly specializes in such oblique endings, and if Taras Bulba (1918) is not one of these, this rhapsody’s graphic yet by no means literal depiction of events related by Gogol leaves no doubt as to its composer’s identification with his subject. Gardner brought fervency then starkness to the respective deaths of Andriy and Ostap, and while the opening stages of the final section were a little temperate, the apotheosis had a glowing inevitability – though some fallible playing was a reminder of this music’s demands for all its relative familiarity.

Friendly Fire – Shakespeare 400: London Symphony Orchestra / Gianandrea Noseda

gianandrea-nosedaFriendly Fire – Simon Trpčeski, London Symphony Orchestra / Gianandrea Noseda (above)

Barbican Hall, London; Thursday 25 February 2016

Welcome to Arcana’s new ‘alternative’ reviews slot! It is an ‘ask the audience’ feature – where I (Ben Hogwood) take a friend / colleague to a classical concert and get them to review it in the bar afterwards. Our second ‘reviewer’ in the series is John Earls, a family man from Harrow & Wealdstone who works as Head of Research at Unite. He shares his thoughts on a program of music inspired by ‘Shakespeare 400’ – with works by Smetana (Richard III), Tchaikovsky (Romeo and Juliet), Richard Strauss (Macbeth) and the seemingly unconnected Piano Concerto no.2 by Liszt. The artists are pianist Simon Trpceski and the London Symphony Orchestra under newly announced guest conductor Gianandrea Noseda.

john-earls

Arcana: How did you prepare for this concert?

John: I didn’t do that much in the way of preparation, other than see what the four pieces in the concert were, and whether I was familiar with them. At the time the only one I thought I was familiar with was the Tchaikovsky, but you reminded me I had heard the Liszt before.

What was your musical upbringing?

As a young child, pretty limited. Most of the music I heard from my parents would have been Irish music, then as I went through school I was more exposed to bits of classical music, as I learned the clarinet. In my teens I got more into contemporary music, rock music, new wave – I played in my own band – and became more interested in jazz and classical music as I got older and attended more concerts and read more about those particular types of music. Jazz and classical are the forms of music I listen to most now.

Name three musical acts you love and why:

(almost without hesitation): Miles Davis was a trailblazer and an innovator who has done some very different things throughout his career. He also struck me as a great leader of bands and ensembles, because he was a great talent spotter who pulled some phenomenal musicians together, and it always struck me that anybody who played with him was better for the experience. They tended to be either better musicians or composersafter having gone through the Miles Davis experience, and also his ensembles tended to be greater than the sum of their parts.

I would also go for Christy Moore, who in many ways would be the soundtrack to my development and my life. I think he has a huge amount of integrity, and if you listen to him sing he comes across as somebody who really means it. If you see him performing live you see a gifted songwriter but also somebody who has a mission to transmit the songs he knows. He has a great deal of songs he hasn’t written but he is able to communicate and pass them on.

I should pick a band really…Wire. I saw them last year for the first time in around 30 years, at the Lexington near Kings Cross. They were influential in my formative days in the late 1970s / early 1980s. They were innovative and straddled the artistic side with the punk sensibility, but had the credibility of doing what they wanted to do. To release an album like they did last year nearly 40 years after they first started, and to think they can still do it, was a phenomenal achievement. They are still great live and the songs incredibly well crafted.

Have you been to classical music concerts before, and if so what has been your experience?

I’m not sure I fit your criteria of ‘someone who doesn’t normally attend a classical concert’. I’m actually a regular classical concert goer – all forms and types. Living in London I’ve been able to see some of the finest musicians and orchestras in the world. Many of my most treasured musical moments have been at ‘classical music’ concerts – Mitsuko Uchida playing Schubert’s late piano sonatas, Rattle and the Berlin Phil doing Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony, Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians with Reich himself playing. I also think some pieces are best experienced live – Messiaen’s Turangalila, for example. Had a few disappointments too! But live music is really important to me. 

What did you think of the Smetana?

I thought it was OK – I could see why they had used it as a piece with which to start. Would I have got the Shakespeare connection? Probably not, but having known it I could see there were bits that sounded regal. Some bits reminded me of a royal hunt, with lots of trumpet. Some of it was like a fanfare but there was solo trumpet that was quite ‘angsty’ and personal. I suppose the trumpet has royal connections. Those things came into my mind while I was listening but I’m not sure, as a piece of music, I would be in a huge hurry to listen to it again.

What about the Liszt?

I hadn’t remembered that I had heard it before. I quite enjoyed it, but there were parts where the pianist seemed a bit stroppy and belligerent, reminiscent of Jerry Lee Lewis! I enjoyed it a bit less than I thought I was going to but the thing that did stick out for me was the cello (Rebecca Gilliver’s solo in the third movement – ed). The sound was absolutely beautiful.

What about the Tchaikovsky?

I was more familiar and knew what to expect. I wasn’t used to being that close to the orchestra! If you heard those four pieces of music and was told there was a Shakespeare link to be honest I probably couldn’t have noticed it, but the one that would be most likely would be that one – and you would probably think Romeo and Juliet because of the tragedy, the romance and the action. You almost feel like you’re in a Bond movie! It’s got everything in it, around 16 minutes, it packs it all in, and it’s Tchaikovsky, who I love.

Finally, what about the Richard Strauss?

I thought that was a good piece to finish on. It had a range of things. I don’t think I would have thought Shakespeare but it was more personal in that it was not necessarily a narrative story – you’re inside somebody’s head. I’ve got ‘magisterial’ written down here, and I felt there was a real tension in it. The offstage snare drum was great, I always like that use of the space, and I’ve not heard the percussion played like that before (the tam tam I think! – ed)

It was more psychological I think, and it was only in that piece that I noticed Noseda’s score was tiny, I’ve never seen one so small! I enjoyed the music, and would go back to listen to it again. I didn’t realise Strauss was 24, that’s quite a phenomenal achievement – not only to put all the instrumentation together but to get the psychological elements at that stage, you would think only an older composer would manage that.

What about the environment and setting of the concert, and how it was promoted?

The only PR I’ve seen was the Shakespeare-related things, and I couldn’t see the link with the Liszt, but I like the idea of linking things in. Sometimes it can be a bit contrived but I think if it’s used as a technique to expose you to different bits of music then that’s fine – like Romeo and Juliet – and it worked for me in the case of the Strauss but not the Smetana.

I think they got the range and order of the pieces right. I’ve been to the Barbican as a venue, and I do like the way it works with an instrument offstage, like they did with the Strauss. I’ve seen that done with vocal and choral pieces and it can work. I think the conductor was quite energetic, not necessarily in a flowing way – quite staccato would be your terminology! There seemed a good rapport between him and the orchestra, the sense they really respect him.

If you could give it a mark out of 10 what would you give?

Probably a 7, but that would be an average. The Tchaikovsky and the Strauss would be an 8 or 9, and the Smetana would drag it down a bit. But it was certainly worth going to!

Arcana’s brief thoughts on the concert:

The connections between classical music and Shakespeare are many, but the London Symphony Orchestra did really well to present a variety of nineteenth century settings. All fall into the ‘Romantic’ period, where composers were getting to grips with the idea of the orchestra being a storyteller in what was known the ‘symphonic poem’.

Smetana’s Richard III was an ideal curtain opener, though like its subject it had an uneven walk – brilliantly portrayed but still with a sense of a portrait not quite fully fledged.

Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet was different. This was the London Symphony Orchestra on white hot form, Gianandrea Noseda conducting like a man wholly affected by the tragedy. This music surged forward with passion and drama in equal measure, and the hair stood up with the volley of brass and percussion, and the intensity of the love theme on the strings.

Richard Strauss’s Macbeth was equally intense, though even more effective in exploring the minds of the two main protagonists of the story. The lower strings had a steely effectiveness, the double basses brilliantly marshalled, while the drama above unfolded in compelling fashion.

Though Liszt’s Piano Concerto no.2 had no Shakespearian connection it was a relatively sound choice, for he is a composer unable to resist the temptation of telling a story! This one had its moments of drama, albeit fleeting in comparison to the warhorses of the second half.