5th February 2021
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.