Czech Philharmonic and Jirí Bělohlávek Shine at Carnegie

Czech Philharmonic/Jirí Bělohlávek with Jean-Yves Thibaudet
Janáček: Taras Bulba
Liszt: Piano Concerto No. 2
Dvořák:Symphony No. 9, "From the New World"
Carnegie Hall
Nov. 16, 2014

Since I previewed this Sunday afternoon concert, I'll skip repeating the background information -- except to note that I've since learned this was the group's first NYC appearance in ten years -- and get right to considering the performance itself. To give away the conclusion up front, in my notes, I used the words "perfect" and "wonderful" a lot.

The Janáček tone poem opened the program. It's not a favorite of mine (actually, it may be my least favorite piece by this composer), but Bělohlávek and his band can't be faulted. Tempos were a bit on the quick side (23 minutes total), welcomingly limiting the bombast somewhat, yet everything was still crystal clear. Early on the concertmaster, Josef Špaček Jr., demonstrated his magnificent combination of warm tone, supple phrasing, and precision on Andrei's love motif; in fact, all the many brief instrumental solos (at least a half-dozen; Bělohlávek gave each soloist a separate bow afterward) were stellar. The only slight flaw was a brief trombone bobble in the second movement. The split seating, with the basses ranged behind and cellos in the middle, repeatedly paid sonic dividends here and in the Dvořák.

For the concerto, I was surprised to see the piano placed front and center, leaving the conductor with his back to the soloist (and this was also the only piece -- by a non-Czech, notably -- for which Bělohlávek used the score). The program notes played up the fact that Liszt made the piano and orchestra equal partners and even originally entitled it Concerto symphonique, and with this stage layout there was no question that except in unaccompanied passages, Thibaudet had no choice but to follow, which he did with aplomb (and in dapper Vivienne Westwood-designed attire). There were again some shining moments for first-chair players in the orchestra, notably cellist Václav Petr (there's a drop-dead gorgeous piano/cello duet at one point) and clarinetist František Bláha. But, of course, Thibaudet was featured the most, flawlessly as far as I could hear (some middle-register passagework didn't always cut through), phrasing with liquid elegance and scintillating tone while displaying a wide and finely gradated dynamic range. Overall, Bělohlávek's tempi were on the slightly fast side of moderate (18:46 overall), but the piece came off as effervescent anyway, with an especially zippy conclusion.

Thibaudet surprised with an unidentified solo encore that none of my acquaintances could name (I owe my identification here to the Times review), and was the talk of the intermission that followed; it was an unpublished Schubert G-flat major waltz arranged by Richard Strauss, exuding dignified charm.

After intermission came the main work and the reason I attended: the Dvořák. It was even better than I had hoped, besting both of Bělohlávek's recordings. Even in concert he skipped the exposition repeat, for which I am always thankful in this piece. Though it was faster (39:41 [9:26/10:57/8:04/11:14] by my calculation, not counting pauses) than either recording, it lost none of their tenderness, not even in the Largo, which was over a minute shorter than the faster one. There were many exquisite touches: the perfect degree of slowing for the return of the flute solo in the first movement recapitulation; the firm, rich, enveloping sound of the brass chorale that opens the Largo; not only the perfect tone of English horn soloist Vojtěch Jouza but also the bed of strings and clarinets shimmering under him; the mesmerizing second section of the Largo with the "walking" bass; strings phrasing with a perfect legato that never turned syrupy; a wonderfully hushed second-movement final section; perfectly proportioned slowdowns for Scherzo trio sections, with counter-rhythms magically clear yet limber.

The only slight flaw I heard in the entire piece's execution came in the Largo: one flute entrance early by one beat but quickly retracted and corrected. After they'd moved into the finale with no pause, another fine touch, I wrote, exuberantly, "this is how clarinets are supposed to sound!" I felt chills on the transition into the major section and again at the slowdown for the quiet section before the climax. The orchestra's immense yet finely wielded power at the end was thrilling without being showy or blowzy. I have never heard a performance of this piece by a living conductor that surpassed the Czech Phil. under Bělohlávek on Sunday.

After this triumph had been greeted by extended applause and a partial standing ovation, we got not one but two encores. "Vltava" (The Moldau) from Smetana's Ma Vlast was an unsurprising choice, its waters flowing with unmatched grace in a performance full of joy. Even during Bělohlávek's breakneck pace at the end, the strings' articulation remained precise yet organically fluid. Then came the sweet "Valse Triste" of a composer unknown to me, Oskar Nedbal; if Bělohlávek hadn't identified it, I would have guessed one of the Strausses (not Richard). His and the orchestra's pride in their musical heritage, and their excellence in conveying it, was apparent throughout the afternoon. - Steve Holtje


Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based composer, poet, and editor who recently composed and recorded the soundtrack for director Enrico Cullen's film A Man Full of Days.