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5th February 2021

A virtual musical world has brought me to Prague which is such a characterful city. If there is any upside at all to a pandemic, it has had the chance to recover from being labelled (sadly) the hen and stag party capital of the world. This livestream brought a glimpse of the city at night-time before settling in the plush interior of the neo-renaissance Rudolfinum, the home of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. For interest – since I was wondering myself – it is named after Rudolf, Crown Prince of Austria, who opened it in 1885.

The ‘Scottish’ is apparently Mendelssohn’s most famous symphony and in 1842 was the last of the five he completed, however, was the third to be published. After a successful London concert season in 1829, Mendelssohn set off on a walking tour of Scotland with his companion Karl Klingemann and arrived there in July. It was their visit to the ruined chapel of Holyrood Palace which inspired this symphony. For more than a decade he was not satisfied with it and revised it several times before it became the work we now know. It was premiered in the Leipzig Gewandhaus in March 1842 and the appellation ‘Scottish’ only became attached to it following Mendelssohn’s death in 1847.

The first movement (Andante con moto — Allegro un poco agitato) begins quietly and builds to a joyous outburst. It is very atmospheric with drama alternating with jauntiness that saw the orchestra and conductor swaying at times. There is a stormy interlude before the movement – the longest of the symphony – races to its end and the music calms down. The brief Vivace non troppo is very lively and it is here in the reminiscences of folk music than we hear a ‘Scottish’ influence most. This scherzo-like movement was shown bringing a smile to Bychkov’s face and there were virtuosic contributions from Jana Brožková’s oboe and Andrea Rysová’s flute. The third movement (Adagio) opens with a sublime theme of early-Romantic charm over plucked strings before the music becomes slightly more portentous as dark forces oppose those of the light.

For the finale (marked Allegro vivacissimo – Allegro maestoso assai) we are not far removed from the composer’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream as the rousing movement generally surges upward – despite shifts in colour and fugal writing – to the final heroic statement in the horns. It was so majestic that it turned an exceptionally accomplished performance into an inspired one as Bychkov bowed to his orchestra in the all-pervading silence of the otherwise empty Rudolfinium. The players had shown they deserved all the praise their chief conductor and music director lavished on them in a pre-recorded interval interview when Bychkov said – amongst much else – how ‘This orchestra is so gifted, these people are so deeply musical, that whatever it is that they love will be in their DNA simply because they are outstanding musicians.’

Opening the relatively short concert was Bryce Dessner’s Concerto for Two Pianos performed by the Labèque sisters for whom it was written. Dessner is a 44-year-old American composer and guitarist who is a member of the rock band The National. When interviewed Marielle explained how when composing a new piano concerto, ‘Normally one piano is enough’ and Katia explained how Dessner ‘plays with his group with as much intensity, as much love, as much desire, that he writes for all the great orchestras of the world, all the chamber music groups, or whatever.’

The Concerto for Two Pianos was premiered with the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall in April 2018. It opens to the sounds of a slapstick ushering in the runs up and down their Steinways from the fast hands of the two piano soloists, Katia (who was seen lifting off her stool on several occasions) and Marielle, against some bombast from the orchestra. It all quietens, and we hear some hints of Debussy and especially Pelléas et Mélisande. Later as the percussion is more involved and there are all the minimalist repetitions, we hear intimations – possibly imitations – of Stravinsky and (Dessner’s older compatriot) Philip Glass. The second movement is tinkly with a certain musical angularity which builds inexorably as if it was underscoring a battle scene in a superheroes’ movie. Occasionally, the sisters are seen playing rapidly at different extremes of their keyboards before it all ends abruptly. The final movement starts quietly and features some jazzy syncopations played with nimble-fingered elegance by the Labèque sisters before there is something of a brass chorale pre-empting the dramatic conclusion.

The members of the Czech Philharmonic – frequently shown in close-up – accompanied Dessner’s 22-minute concerto with commendable enthusiasm for such unfamiliar music. It was equally embraced by the animated Bychkov in an urgent, fleet-footed performance, although he was giving close attention to the score in front of him yet did not need one for the Mendelssohn which was to follow.

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5th February 2021

Klassika Plus

Petr Veber

On Thursday, the Czech Philharmonic streamed under its own direction for the first time on social media and YouTube from the Rudolfinum. Conducted by Semyon Bychkov, the soloists of the Concerto for Two Pianos by contemporary American composer Bryce Dessner were the sisters, Katia and Marielle Labèque. The exceptional opportunity to hear the concert in the hall brought both revelations and confirmations – intense, urgent and even touching – that no technical intermediaries can replace. And also the assurance that the Philharmonic, even without the motivating and inspiring presence of an audience, give 100 percent.

Live streamed online concerts are almost always a shorter format. This Thursday’s concert, with a slight change of programme, was about 70-80 minutes long. At any chosen moment, performing on a fully lit stage, the Philharmonic look and play as if they are giving a regular concert. Only the sound in the hall, the applause, everyone standing at the end, the arrival, departure, thanking of soloists and conductor were missing… As if filming on a set: the unobtrusive arrival, concentration, waiting, imaginary clapping after the music subsided and as soon as the lights go down, returning to civilian behavior. The viewer is represented by a camera. When the red light is off and its lenses are not looking, the public performance stops and the performer sneaks off the stage.

 

First on the agenda was the Czech première of the Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra by American Bryce Dessner, a successful 40 year old with a background in rock, a composer of songs, music for dance, theatre and films, and most recently for the concert hall. His first work as a classical composer was Aheym performed by the famously unconventional, Kronos Quartet. Based in Paris, Dessner sites a number of influences including the music of Olivier Messiaen, Francis Poulenc and Henri Dutilleux. He wrote the Concerto for Two pianos for Katia and Marielle Labèque, who first performed the work with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 2018.

The composition begins without hesitation and, for more than 20 minutes, is impressively symphonic with a rich section of percussion instruments and with both pianos also used primarily as percussive instruments. Dessner can suspend the music flowing forward, not afraid of steep gradations and equally fast silences, but the predominant expression is the regularly rhythmic punch, clear polytonality, but at the same time harmonious static, often staying around one centre… and consistently high dynamics. Only the monotonous urgency and hard-won perseverance, returning to a five-tone, sometimes only four-tone strong motif, never exceeding what is tolerable; he is the bearer of drama and tension, urgency and influence. One can hear that the composer understands two pianos “as one gigantic instrument rather than as two contrasting voices”. The listener’s impression fully corresponds to this. Solo parties, full of notes, fast and brilliant, are all part of the overall sound, sometimes integrated, sometimes separated. The contrasting three-part schedule, even with an episode similar to the solo cadenza in the third movement is interconnected into one stream, with deeper registers prevailing, in which the pianos are sometimes clearly dissonant. The composition ends just as it begins, without a second thought, in a strikingly similar (but still “in its own way”) to the motif of Beethoven’s ‘Destiny’. The result of Dessner’s distinctive invention is impressive music that exudes power; music that is not minimal at all, but still maintaining some of its repetitiveness, straightforwardness and a little magic.

The longer second half of the evening belonged to Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy’s Third Symphony. We know about his deep insight into Bach’s music, and we also know that he was an unadulterated romantic. And we know that in addition to travelling in Italy, he also visited Britain ten times. Although he did not write the work until thirteen years later, the first impulse for his ‘Scottish’ symphony reportedly originated from his first trip when he visited Holyrood Abbey in Edinburgh. Although the symphony does not have a non-musical program, it sounds programmatic especially in the more dramatic passages. And when we take history and landscape into consideration it is “Scottish” in tone and mood… Semyon Bychkov is a conductor whose interpretation of romantic music is passionate. Even this evening, the combination of inspiration and his personality meant that this was a huge and dark interpretation.

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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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