As you will no doubt be aware, this week has seen record breaking temperatures in the UK, which has inspired something of a hot weather classical music sequence.
After works from Debussy and the Danish composer Poul Ruders, I have been reminded of this substantial orchestral piece A Summer’s Tale, by the Czech composer Josef Suk.
Suk, the son-in-law of Antonin Dvořák, has been given greater appreciation in the last few decades for an orchestral output notable for its descriptive and emotional powers. Perhaps his best known work is the tragic symphony Asrael, mourning the loss of both his wife and father-in-law. Operating on a very large scale (lasting 70 minutes in most performances) it is an incredibly powerful work of Mahlerian dimensions. A Summer’s Tale is the work that builds on the hope offered by the end of Asrael, becoming a positive celebration of our sunniest season.
Certainly the first movement, Voices of life and consolation, becomes a heady exultation with full orchestra, a true celebration of nature. The small scale third movement, Blind Musicians, is an account of the composer’s encounter with a small-scale band, playing repetitive folk music – and he sets it for smaller orchestral forces here. Meanwhile the fourth movement, In the Power of Phantoms, is a joyous and almost riotous affirmation. For the fifth movement, Night, Suk employs a sultry nocturne, the music finding rest from the sun but also exploring the richness of the lower strings in a surging chorale episode.
You cab listen to A Summer’s Tale below in a particularly fine version from the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras:
To hear the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra play Dvořák is surely one of classical music’s great pleasures. It was Dvořák who conducted them in their first ever concert, and for the second instalment of their Barbican visit Semyon Bychkov chose to programme his Symphony no.8, a work surely written with the spring season in mind.
The Eighth gets a slightly raw deal, sandwiched in Dvořák’s published output between the critically acclaimed Seventh and the ubiquitous Ninth, the New World. This is a shame because the joyous melodies and persuasive dance rhythms are a celebration of life itself, the composer glorying in the outdoor spaces of the Bohemian countryside. Melodic invention abounds throughout the four movements, and this performance gave room to the delightful swagger of the outdoor tunes, while retaining an elegant, almost Schubertian profile. Perhaps unexpectedly there were also pointers towards early Sibelius, the vivid natural scenes laden with intensity and fulsome orchestration.
The Czech Philharmonic wind section were the stars of this performance, with a sunny flute in the opening pages and some outstanding clarinet playing in the Adagio. Not to be outdone, the strings offered a cushion of sound as springy as the forest floor itself, while bright trumpets energised the fanfare at the start of the finale. The elegance of the cellos’ theme at the start of the first movement and the violins’ graceful way with the Intermezzo were two of many memorable moments from the strings. Bychkov judged the work’s profile to perfection, and there were many smiles among orchestra and audience alike as each new melody made itself known.
A very different mood prevailed for the second half, where celebration came at a cost. Janáček‘s Glagolitic Mass remains a work of extraordinary intensity, stretching its performers to the limits of their range and veering wildly between adulation and strife.
The CBSO Chorus were on heroic form throughout. Superbly marshalled and prepared by chorus director Simon Halsey, organist Julian Wilkins and conductor / pianist Lada Valesova, they sang as one, nailing the tricky ‘Old Church Slavonic’ pronunciations with apparent ease – in particular the distinctive ‘Amin, amin’ refrain of the Gloria. The Credo, the beating heart of this piece, had a white-hot intensity while leaving room for interpretation on the composer’s own religious feelings. By contrast the miraculous chord on which the Agnus Dei often hangs was truly celestial, ideally voiced and weighted. Its introduction was chilling indeed, strings and brass icy to the touch.
The Glagolitic Mass is a tough gig for its four vocal soloists, who have little room in which to make an impact, but the quartet here largely caught its operatic dimensions. If soprano Evelina Dobračeva seemed a little withdrawn initially she soon found her footing. Tenor Aleš Briscein, the highest of high priests, was commendably secure in his intonation but appropriately edgy as Janáček’s writing pushed the limits of the vocal range. Boris Prýgl offered fulsome support as bass soloist, as did alto Lucie Hislcherová in her brief appearance. Organist Daniela Valtová Kosinová, on the other hand, made the most of her instrument’s crucial role, launching into a Postludium of fearsome strength and wildly irregular rhythm. The instrument was well balanced through the Barbican speaker system, Kosinová’s feet a whirl as they kept up with Janáček’s demanding bass part, before those two damning final chords of the crucifixion. Bychkov encouraged the feverish violins through an Intrada that, while ultimately triumphant, only heightened the searing intensity of what had gone before.
Both these national statements felt so appropriate for the times, celebrating freedom of movement but also the power – and cost – of faith. As with the first night performances Bychkov eloquently dedicated the music to the people of Ukraine, before a performance of the country’s national anthem. It is hard to think of two more appropriate or contrasting accounts, and the Czech Philharmonic and their principal conductor deserve the utmost credit for two nights of unrivalled artistic brilliance.
You can listen to the repertoire in this concert by using the Spotify playlist below, which includes the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra‘s recent recordings of both works for Decca, made under their previous and sadly missed principal conductor Jiří Bělohlávek:
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: