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Seen and Heard Prom Review

 

PROM 7: Vejvanovský, Mysliveček, Mozart, Martinů, Novák, Magdalena Kožená (mezzo); Marcel Javorček (piano); Ivan Hoznedr (timpani); Prague Philharmonia/Jiří Bĕlohlávek. Royal Albert Hall, Wednesday, July 21st (CC)

 

The Czech theme continues after the heart-warming performance of Dimitrij with this mix of lesser-known Czech composers, one very well known one, and Mozart (the link being the ‘Prague’ symphony).

 

A short 1665 ‘Sonata vespertina’ by Pavel Josef Vejanovský opened things (a first Proms performance – no surprise there.) Vejanovský was Kapellmeister for Karl Liechtenstein-Castelcorno, Prince-Bishop of Olomouc. Much of Vejanovský’s music is of liturgical bent, and it is possible the present work was meant for insertion into a service. It is a stately yet celebratory piece that showed off the Czech trumpets of the Prague Philharmonia especially (what a lovely, velvety sound, yet such definition!) Rhythms were highly sprung, the dialogues between two trumpets being born of equals. Superb.

 

But maybe I was not alone in the hall in itching to hear Magdalena Kožená again. Her Wigmore lunchtime recital in February had certainly been memorable. But here, possibly because of the festival atmosphere and larger audience, she excelled. Plus, of course, she was on home ground, singing Czech music and Mozart (in whom she has scored notable successes.)

 

Josef Mysliveček’s opera L’Olimpiade of 1778 was yet another view of the famous story of its title. Kožená chose an aria from Act II (it’s in Italian) – ‘Che non mi disse un dì’ (‘What words did he not once say to me?), a rage aria of much syncopation and dramatic tremolandi. The aria showed not only Kožená’s superb declamation and pitching, but her excellent diction in Italian also. Bĕlohlávek’s accompaniment was spot-on. A short aria, this made one want to investigate further …

 

Two Mozart ‘insertion’ arias followed (again, in Italian.) Strangely, Kožená used music for these, yet she was no less impressive in her delivery. ‘Vado, ma dove’, K583 was composed for insertion into Soler’s Il burbero di buon cuore; ‘Alma grande e nobil core’, K478 (both date from 1789) for Cimarosa’s I due baroni di Rocca Azzurra of 1783. The stage persona of Kožená certainly came out in the first (the text concerns a wife whose husband has lost his fortune and she calls on Love to give her resolve). There was much beauty here also (also from the exquisite solo clarinet at the opening of the second stanza.)

 

The strength of the second aria was Kožená’s ability to integrate Mozart’s florid lines (to call them embellishments in the context of this performance is to diminish them.) Almost always Kožená’s movement between notes was clean – there was no ‘mess’, no swooping, nothing but the line and her expression. There was one exception and it could hardly have been more ill-timed, a swoop (slide) up to the climactic high note of ‘Alma grande’ that was a shame. But one was nevertheless left with the thought that she surely has few rivals in this music. Bĕlohlávek conducted sensitively and attentively.

 

The long first half was completed by Martinů’s Double Concerto for two string orchestras, piano and timpani of 1938, written as storm clouds gathered over Europe. This atmosphere is reflected in the febrile and nervy first movement (‘Poco allegro.) Bĕlohlávek found pools of extraordinary delicacy within the prevailing angst, and such was the identification of all concerned that it was easy to overlook the sheer perfection of rapid violin figures. The Prague Philharmonia is a force to be reckoned with.

 

The emotional ambiguity of the chording that forms the opening of the Largo is a masterstroke on the composer’s part. Bĕlohlávek brought out the nobility, the intrinsic pride of this movement while Martinů’s imagination never failed to impress – the sparse two-part counterpoint of the piano acted as a real point of contrast, yet perhaps it was the moments of musical blackness that were most impressive. The climax was luminous, leading to an uneasy peace (broken by inappropriate applause.)

 

We hear too little of Vítěslav Novák’s music in this country. Novák was a student of Dvořák at the Prague Conservatoire (along with Josef Suk.) The Melancholic Songs of Love were composed in 1906. The composer described them as ‘Melancholy in a major key’, a nice description that fits them well. Novák was a master orchestrator (although the songs were originally for voice and piano), as could be heard immediately by the hyper-delicate orchestral tapestry that opens the set. Kožená (music-less now) was entirely at home, her low register lovely and rich, her question ‘Co našla?’ (‘What did it find?’) pregnant with possibility. The luxuriant yearning of this music was vividly painted by all.

 

The spoken final word of the second song came as something of an interesting surprise; the easy lyricism of the third (‘Kdy láska přiletá? – ‘When does love descend?’) worked in contrast to the Straussian horns and oboe of the final outpouring (‘Ó, lásky moře bezdné’; ‘Oh, bottomless sea of love’.) This is a major song-cycle that should be taken seriously.

 

Mozart’s ‘Prague’ symphony was a perhaps predictable choice, but here it came up fresh as a daisy. The slow introduction came across in the spirit of an opera overture, the Giovannian links string. There was much life to the allegro (although the ‘second subject’ was rather rushed through). If the woodwind dissonances in the Andante were perhaps underplayed, this was nevertheless a touching performance (including true pianissimi!) A playful finale (the players really seemed to enjoy Mozart’s rhythmic games) brought the concert to a joyous close.

 

It is to be hoped that the recently formed (1994) and excellent Prague Philharmonia will be frequent visitors to these shores.

 

Colin Clarke

 

 

Further Listening:

 

Mysliveček: on Kožená’s excellent album entitled, ‘Le belle immagini’, DG 471 334-2

 

Novák: Melancholic Songs of Love are on Supraphon SU3372-2 931 (with Jana Tetourová accompanied by Bĕlohlávek). There is also an excellent Chandos disc of orchestral works with the BBC Philharmonic on CHAN9821; also my review on Amazon

 

Martinů: Prague RSO/Mackerras. Supraphon SU3276-2 931

 

Also, although it does not contain any Vejvanovský, a disc entitled ‘Masters of Czech Baroque and Classicism’ (music slightly later than Vejvanovský) is strongly recommended on BMG Czech Republic 82876 552872



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