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.