5th September 2020
The Czech Philharmonic opened the Dvořák Prague International Music Festival in the Rudolfinum in a way which was nowhere close to routine. The composer’s two best known and most famous concert compositions, the New World Symphony and the Concerto in B Minor, might tempt the performers to take it easy. But Semyon Bychkov examined the score in detail and Václav Petr endowed the Cello Concerto many unusual and beautiful qualities.
Semyon Bychkov narrates Dvořák’s music. He conducts and structures it in a way that suggests that there is always something going on, the tones are talking to each other, sighing. His interpretation is romantic and shows that Dvořák was European as well as being a Czech, living and composing in the same period as Tchaikovsky. He pays attention to detail when working on the dynamics and tempos, the stream of music is textured in larger units, flowing undisturbed. He divides the individual parts, allowing them to quieten down and the orchestra to breathe before the next one. Every musical moment had its context, meaning and point. It sometimes sounded so epic that it reminded us of an opera without singing, most of the time it felt like listening to a symphonic poem. It was a pity that the civil pauses between movements (even in places where the music usually continues straight away) meant that the atmosphere faded away.
Václav Petr started the Concerto in B Minor very, very slowly and quietly, often returning to this mood during the piece and finishing in a similar fashion. His approach was poetic, humble, song-like, quiet, soft and calm. The orchestra was also uncommonly quiet with beautiful wind instrument solos and interplay with the soloist and concert master in the third movement. Towards the end, there is a long song-like intermezzo, which is known to be a memory of Josefina, Dvořák’s first love who had recently passed away. This time, her portrait was especially moving. The soloist later avoided the often pointlessly rhapsodic amplification of his part in the last bars. We have not heard such interpretation of Dvořák’s Cello Concerto – so lyrical and soft but resonant – for a long time.
The New World Symphony offered many magical moments, it sounded neither vacant nor opulent, was full of musicality with carefully planned structure, always new and changing, playful, and performed with both joy and mastery. The Chief Conductor chose a slightly faster tempo in Largo with the cor anglais solo, but went for some rather unusual diminuendos in other parts and movements. He also highlighted the lyrical pause before the end of the final movement, which the composer timed perfectly, reminding one of the Concerto in B Minor or Smetana’s symphonic poem Blaník… The conductor apparently worked on his interpretation righteously and with humbleness, showing he doesn’t take Czech music lightly.
The Dvořák Prague International Music Festival in the Dvořák Hall could not begin without Dvořák’s music. Luckily, the danger that an opening programme with two such well-known works might become a purely formal tribute to the genius, a mere social event, and in the worst case only a repetitive experience of something that had been heard a hundred times before, fell flat. The way in which the Philharmonic musicians, Václav Petr and Semyon Bychkov read, lived and presented the music (and this particular way only), makes full and absolute sense to repeat time-proven all-time favourites in concert.