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A Glowing Performance

The Czech Philharmonic on tour,
reviewed by MIKE WHEELER


The Czech Philharmonic began a six-date tour of England and the Irish Republic with conductor Jirí Belohlávek in a programme of Dvorák and Rachmaninov (Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham, UK, 13 November 2006). The warm string sound and clear woodwind were a delight to listen to; I was particularly taken with the wonderfully tangy clarinet tone.

Their glowing performance of Dvorák's Symphonic Variations left me wondering again why this delightful piece isn't played more often. It's full of the composer's most engagingly characteristic details of scoring, rhythm and melodic turns of phrase, which the CPO conveyed with disarming vividness, building a compelling head of excitement in the finale.

For Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini they were joined by Chinese-American pianist Lang Lang. There was blistering energy in the opening minutes and in the final group of quick variations, a wonderful sense of delicacy in Variation 6, and an unearthly, almost sinister stillness in Variation 7, when the 'Dies Irae' chant first appears. Lang Lang's coruscating finger-work was breathtaking, but a tendency to over-romanticise surfaced from time to time, notably in the minuet-like Variation 12. In the well-known eighteenth variation there was a noticeable discrepancy between his pulling around of the tempo in his initial solo statement, and the orchestra's more restrained response. An under-balanced left hand in Variation 15 resulted in a lack of rhythmic definition. His indulgent way with his encore -- 'Traümerei' from Schumann's Kinderszenen -- undermined its essential simplicity and kept us waiting for the final chord for what seemed like an eternity.

Dvorák's Eighth Symphony is usually thought of as one of his sunniest, most relaxed works, but Belohlávek and the CPO explored some fairly dark, dramatic corners in the first two movements. There was some crisply pointed woodwind detail in the wonderfully lilting account of the third movement, and the festive atmosphere created in the finale was irresistible.

Copyright © 21 November 2006 Mike Wheeler, Derby UK




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