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5th February 2021

In its 125-year history, the Czech Philharmonic, one of the world’s most venerable orchestras, has had to endure some hard times. During the Second World War, they underwent the humiliation of playing for the Führer’s birthday, and in the era of Communist Czechoslovakia, they had to kowtow to the Soviet-aligned regime.

But the long slow attrition of the Covid-19 pandemic has in some ways been the hardest to endure. There was a moment of hope when the orchestra was able to give an outdoor concert in Sychrov Castle last June, but it’s been downhill since then. All concerts with live audiences remain cancelled until April – including a full European tour, which would have entailed a London date at the Barbican next weekend.

This great orchestra’s instinct to make music, however, is irrepressible, and last night they and their chief conductor Semyon Bychkov performed in their Prague base, the resplendently gilded (but, alas, completely empty) Rudolfinum. Back in June, they comforted the rain-soaked attendees with copper-bottomed classics; this time they surprised their online audience by launching off with a quintessentially American concerto for two pianos, performed by those doughty proselytisers for new music, Katya and Marielle Labèque.

The concerto’s composer Bryce Dessner is a guitarist in the rock band The National, but you would have listened in vain for a trace of a pop influence on this piece. What you could certainly hear was that aspirational minimalism of John Adams in which the hectic repeated patterns seem to urge upwards to transcendence – though the cascading patterns thrown off with such exuberance by the Labèque sisters told us that 19th-century virtuoso pianism was an equally potent influence.

I mention these things only to offer some bearings, because Dessner, creatively speaking, is very much his own man. He has a distinct harmonic palette that can tip from cloudy anxiety to hope in a moment, but the more striking thing about this concerto was its form. Cast in one movement with occasional teasing breaks, the piece launched off with a fast, tumbling idea that soon gave way to a slower, more expressive one.

All very traditional, but the almost-constant minimalist tick somewhere underneath blurred the distinction between fast and slow, and Dessner used this ambiguity to lever the music into new expressive areas, or back into old ones. A series of pungent Steve Reich-like bass notes initiated a gathering of energy, and pretty soon a grand final peroration seemed in the offing. Then came an unexpected detour into a proper slow movement, played with nice delicacy by the Labèques. But this was only a brief reculer pour mieux sauter – a step back, so the final leap towards the tumultuous end would be even more decisive.

In the concert’s other piece, Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony, the Czech Phil players had to call on different skills: a mastery of the long lyrical line and the delicately turned phrase, which they certainly showed in abundance. As always, Bychkov’s tempos were never strikingly fast or slow; what mattered were the innumerable telling flexibilities he made within them. The one disappointment was the distant and unengaging broadcast sound, but the performances were so thrilling it hardly mattered.

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5th February 2021

OperaPlus

KATEŘINA PINCOVÁ

The first own stream of the Czech Philharmonic with the Labèque sisters celebrated success

The new TV studio, recently established in Prague’s Rudolfinum, was streaming for the first time. On Thursday, February 4, 2021, social media users around the world were able to listen to a unique concert in the current unwished for conditions – a concert presented by Katia and Marielle Labèque together with the Czech Philharmonic under the leadership of Semyon Bychkov. Although the selection of soloists and repertoire was already attractive, most impressive proved to be the power of the moment and the incredible enthusiasm invested in the performance, which emanated from everyone involved. 

Commissioned about five years ago by the Labèque sisters from composer, Bryce Dessner, the Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra was first on the programme.. Since its commission, the Labèques have toured the work to major concert halls with great success. Dessner is a unique case of a composer who has a great deal of insight into musical styles and different genres of music (he studied classical composition at Yale University and is also the founder of the rock band The National) and thus manages to attract large audiences. At the same time, however, these are thoughtful and sophisticated musical structures that are unlikely to offend even the most demanding ears.

The Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra proved that Bryce Dessner does not simply write music that is intimidating for listeners and relaxing for musicians. The solo piano parts contain large numbers of technically demanding passages that test the dexterity of the fingers, rhythmic prowess and the ability to interact; absolute precision is required of the orchestra, whether in the substantial minimalist sections containing a large number of irregular patterns, or in places where trio and straight rhythms are mixed in different instrumental parts.

Both solo and orchestral components worked perfectly. Despite their age, the Labèque sisters can be proud of the fact that their fingers work perfectly, which they demonstrated from the very beginning of the composition; later one could appreciate the subtlety of touch in the quieter dynamics. And, finally we could admire the unfailing energy which they gave to all the dynamically exposed (syncopated) passages.

The question then remains whether the soloists tore down the Orchestra with that expressive musical fervour, or if it was the other way around?  From the outset, the Czech Philharmonic was equally full of enthusiasm and perhaps a euphoric desire to play. All players could see that not only did this concerto require maximum concentration, but they also enjoyed each phrase. Together with the soloists, the whole group on stage seemed very compact and well-drilled, but above all extremely interested in the cause. I cannot help feeling that the smaller frequency of concerts must have this effect on many musical ensembles; although the Czech Philharmonic is one of the best orchestras in the world, it is composed of the best players and its sound is unique, I have not yet heard this ensemble bringing this level of commitment and happiness from its players.

And it wasn’t just the Dessner. The same atmosphere reigned on stage during the second work of the evening, Symphony No. 3 in A minor subtitled “Scottish” by Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. Semyon Bychkov was able to build this composition as romantically sad, with reasonable rubato, and with a huge amount of emotion, which didn’t bombard the audience, but was “just” offered to it. From the interpretation, I didn’t think the main desire was for the satisfaction of the listener – which frequently leads to excessive showing off – but more for a thirst to penetrate the very depths of the music, and so bring to life the hidden musical story of the symphony.

At the same time, however, the interpretation lacked nothing from a technical point of view: the individual sections were well rehearsed (it is especially important to draw attention to the readiness of the woodwinds, who did not have any difficulties at all with the tempo set by the conductor in the second movement); the whole orchestra sounded perfect, and (especially in the case of such a well-known composition) a refreshing element was the performance of some secondary themes, which can often be overlooked; the phrases (especially in the first movement) contained a strange inner thrust, which at first floated calmly and then escalated in  tension for the tense dramatic passages.

Even in these times, it is possible to get close to the highest echelons of music culture. Most of us can’t accept some of the government regulations regarding the current (non) course of cultural events, and a lot of measures may seem incomprehensible (like the Labèque sisters, who arrived on a crowded plane but were not allowed to play to an audience who would be socially distancing) – Katia Labèque even said that it “doesn’t seem to matter to anyone what we do.” Yes, it really does look like nobody cares. But thousands of grateful listeners at home screens do.

Thank you.

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27th January 2021

Czech Philharmonic February live-stream

On Thursday 4 February, the Czech Philharmonic will present the first of its own live-streamed concerts on Facebook. Chief Conductor and Music Director Semyon Bychkov conducts music by Mendelssohn and Bryce Dessner with soloists Katia et Marielle Labèque. In addition to being co-hosted on Maestro Bychkov’s Facebook page, the live-stream...

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25th January 2021

Recording Má vlast in Prague

Replacing the originally planned concerts at the end of January in Prague, this week (25-29 January) Bychkov and the Czech Philharmonic will start their recording sessions of Smetana’s Má vlast. Bychkov first conducted the Orchestra in the iconic work in October 2019 and in November 2020 chose Má vlast to...

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