Dvořák, the Velvet Revolution, and the Czech Philharmonic to be Celebrated


Czech conductor Jirí Bělohlávek recently won the Antonín Dvořák Prize for his promotion of Czech classical music in general and Dvořák's in particular. At Carnegie Hall on Sunday afternoon, Nov. 16, he will actually receive the award after a concert in which he will lead the Czech Philharmonic and in a program of Janáček's tone poem Taras Bulba, Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 2 with soloist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, and Dvořák's Symphony No. 9, "From the New World."

Nov. 16 is also the 25th anniversary of the start of the 1989 "Velvet Revolution," which peacefully ended Communist rule of what was then Czechoslovakia (it split into two countries in 1993). This is no coincidence. In connection with this concert, the government of the Czech Republic has allowed Dvořák's original manuscript for the symphony [title page shown above] out of the country for the first time since the composer brought it home on returning from his sojourn in the United States, where it was premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1893. The manuscript will be on display at the Bohemian National Hall (321 East 73rd Street in Manhattan) November 17-21 (1-9 PM) along with the orchestral parts used in the premiere, on loan from the New York Philharmonic. The Czech Center New York and Dvořák American Heritage Association will offer related lectures, performances, and film screenings at Bohemian National Hall; admission is free for all events there in connection with this exhibit (CzechCenter.com).

I last caught a Bělohlávek performance in NYC two years ago when he conducted the Prague Philharmonia (of which he was the founder) at the Bohemian National Hall. Nothing against either that ensemble or that locale, but obviously Maestro Bělohlávek is moving up in the world. He was named the chief conductor of the Czech Philharmonic later that year; it is the country's premiere orchestra. He had previously been named to the same post in 1990, but then in '91 the orchestra's reorganization resulted in the controversial and ill-fated appointment of Gerd Albrecht as chief conductor (the first non-Czech ever in that post). The orchestra had approached Bělohlávek many times about returning, and finally he agreed in 2010 (taking effect in 2012)

Near the end of 2012, Bělohlávek started recording a six-CD set of all nine of Dvořák's symphonies plus his three concertos with the Czech Phil., released earlier this year on Decca. It immediately became the top recommendation for a complete set of the symphonies (not his first stab at Dvořák's symphonies, of course). It is certainly the best-sounding set, highly detailed (a function not only of the engineering but also of the conductor's attention to detail) yet also warm. It also, crucially, does full justice to the underrated symphonies before the famous 7-9, even making the first three sound good.

This great orchestra is truly one of the best in the world, and more notably is also one of the few to have retained its distinctive national character in this age of internationalization: lush yet folksy strings, woodwinds whose timbres are not diluted into smoothness -- though the brass do not feature the big vibratos of their predecessors. Time and again, they combine with Bělohlávek's shaping of the music to present Dvořák's tuneful themes with a piquant songfulness that brings out their wistful melancholy in all its psychologically layered glory.

Bělohlávek's tendency to breadth is balanced by his general omission of exposition repeats (he only takes them in the more tightly wound Fourth and Fifth Symphonies), which I'm in agreement with. In the earlier symphonies, which lack structural tautness, skipping these repeats helps them hold together; the composer himself had second thoughts about that of the Sixth. And, in particular, in the Ninth I have always found the repeat an awkward, unwelcome interruption of the flow.

Needless to say the Czech Phil. -- which Dvořák conducted in its first concert in 1896 -- dominates the Dvořák discography, so there is plenty of competition in the later symphonies from the same orchestra under the leadership of such legendary Czech conductors as Václav Talich, Karel Ančerl, and Rafael Kubelik, to name the greatest of them. I wouldn't place Bĕlohlávek's work on the level of them at their best in the Eighth and Ninth (I hope to have an overview of Ninth recordings finished soon), but he comes up with a distinctive-enough interpretation of the Ninth that he is worth hearing and certainly doesn't slack from the excellence of the earlier parts of this set. The slow movement is given a very tender reading, yet never bogs down as Bĕlohlávek and the Czech Phil. -- so familiar with this piece -- play it so lovingly that it instead wafts gently. The entire reading is warmly affectionate, which is not to say that there is not drama in all the right places. Aside from the tempo in that slow movement, there is nothing unusual about this reading, no straining for effects or parading distinctive quirks for the sake of attention, but neither is there anything rote about it. While listening to it, one thinks, "Yes, this is how it should go." (Of course, it can go other ways as well, just as convincingly, in the hands of the aforementioned greats.)

The soloists -- in the Cello Concerto, Alisa Weilerstein; Violin Concerto, Frank Peter Zimmermann; Piano Concerto, Garrick Ohlsson -- are uniformly excellent. In particular, the Piano Concerto, which so often seems awkward, here is graceful and charming. Having the concertos in this set certainly adds value. It's worth noting that this set, unlike Decca's previous cycle from the mid- '60s with István Kertész (leading the slightly less idiomatic London Symphony Orchestra), avoids spreading any piece across two discs (another way in which skipping exposition repeats is helpful). - 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.