Czech night

Sunday’s Prom was an almost all-Czech affair. One of the notable exceptions was Sir John Eliot Gardiner, who conducted the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, a group of musicians who all seem to have Czech names, and who are almost all men. So whereas the BBC Symphony Orchestra has a Czech principal conductor, the Czech orchestra had a British conductor, for tonight at least.

It was another extra-long concert, but strangely, on this occasion there were two intervals, unlike Prom 45 which was a similar length but only had one break. I found this slightly unnecessary and felt the concert could have been divided into just two parts.

After opening with Dvořák’s Carnival Overture, the orchestra went on to perform Martinů’s sixth symphony, Fantaisies symphoniques. Martinů is quite a recent discovery for me, and I attended half of the cycle of his symphonies over the past year (performed by none other than the BBC SO under Jiří Bělohlávek). It was interesting to hear a Czech orchestra’s take on it tonight. During the cycle, I have to admit I preferred Martinů’s earlier symphonies, which have the same characteristics rhythms and harmonies, but are somehow easier listening. Still, tonight’s performance of his final symphony was dynamic and well worth hearing. For anyone who doesn’t know Martinů, I definitely recommend having a listen, particularly if you like Czech music, as Martinů is Czech music with a 20th century twist.

After the first interval, the concerto was one of the other components of the evening not to be Czech, as it was Grieg’s piano concerto. I wondered why this was, but actually I can’t think of any piano concertos written by Czech composers. Grieg’s concerto is one of the favourites in the repertoire, and  it was given a stunning performance by German pianist Lars Vogt, the third and final non-Czech part of tonight. I’ve never heard Vogt play before, but he’s one to look out for. He gave an intense performance of the Grieg, grimacing and at times looking at both the audience and the orchestra for encouragement after a long passage for the piano. Vogt later showed his more tender side when he played Chopin as an encore.

After the second interval came Janáček’s The Ballad of Blaník, with Blaník being a mythological figure who is also the subject of the final tone poem in Smetana’s Ma Vlast. I wasn’t familiar with this piece at all, but it has interesting orchestration, including a celesta. Then finally, at the end of the concert, came Dvořák’s 8th Symphony. Despite being sometimes known as the English Symphony (in honour of the publishers) this is one of Dvořák’s most Czech symphonies, full of folk melodies. It also happens to be one of my all-time favourite symphonies. There are no boring bits, from the opening cellos and dramatic first movement, the pastoral second movement with its bird calls, the Slavonic Dance-like third movement, and the finale with all its fanfares, and including, I always think, a section inspired by steam trains, as Dvořák was famously a railway enthusiast. It was interesting to be able to compare this Czech performance with one by a British orchestra that I heard earlier this year. No performance of this symphony is likely to disappoint me, but I thought tonight’s was exceptionally good. The rest of the audience clearly agreed, and gave such an applause that we managed to get a second encore out of them: a whole Slavonic Dance.

This Prom was definitely my favourite so far, but then it was always likely to be due to the programme, particularly combining the Grieg and Dvořák symphony. It’ll be interesting to see if any concerts in the remainder of the season can exceed it.

I can’t help but think of the Morcambe and Wise sketch featuring André Previn whenever I hear the opening of the Grieg piano concerto. I thought the BBC would never mention anything so frivolous, until I checked the concert programme online and discovered a full-page still from the sketch! As they point out, Morecambe said he had fished off Sir Henry Wood’s Promenade.

Prom 58
Dvořák
Overture ‘Carnival’
Martinů Fantaisies symphoniques (Symphony No. 6)
interval
Grieg Piano Concerto in A minor
interval
Janáček The Ballad of Blaník
Dvořák Symphony No. 8 in G major
Lars Vogt piano
Czech Philhamonic Orchestra
Sir John Eliot Gardiner conductor

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