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PROM 70: Dvorák Birthday Concert: Sarah Chang (violin); Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Charles Mackerras (conductor); Royal Albert Hall, 8th September, 2004 (AR)


The Czech Philharmonic Orchestra was formerly the orchestra of the Prague National Opera. It played its first concert under its current name on January 4, 1896, when Antonin Dvorák conducted his own compositions, but did not become fully independent from the opera until 1901. In 1908, Gustav Mahler led the orchestra in the world premiere of his Seventh Symphony.


Their Chief Guest conductor, Sir Charles Mackerras, devoted an entire programme of Dvorák's music to celebrate the composer's birthday. Dvorak's Scherzo capriccioso, Op. 61 was given a light airy reading, with Mackerras initiating a sensation of breeze and open spaces. The orchestral textures were chamber-like, crisp and feather light, with the horns having a particularly crisp tone.


Dvorák's Violin Concerto in A minor, Op 53 is one of his least inspired and unimaginative scores, far more conservative and conventional than his great symphonic Cello Concerto. American-Korean virtuoso Sarah Chang played with great energy and attack. Unfortunately, Dvorák did not survive this brutal assault and neither did Chang's bow: she was constantly having to wrench the broken hairs off it.


All three movements were played with the same heavy-handed manner with Chang grotesquely savaging her 1717 Guarneri del Gesù, almost sawing it in half. The melodic element of the Adagio, ma non troppo went for nothing, her tone sounding sour and acidic: any sense of the delicacy and lyricism was lost, reflectivity and repose were totally lacking here.


Her turgid playing of the Final: Allegro giocoso, ma non troppo was brutal and brash. In stark contrast, Mackerras and his forces offered sensitive and poetic support. Energy is no substitute for artistry - Ms. Chang has still to learn that music-making means more than mere brute force. A member of the audience described her playing in one word to me: "ignorant". Pretty red dress, shame about the concerto.


Dvorák's Ninth Symphony 'From the New World' is one of the most popular and often played symphonies yet under Mackerras' cliché free performance it sounded astonishingly freshly minted: the timpani perfectly punctuated the opening, whilst the intimate woodwind could be clearly heard even in the more climactic moments.


The Largo was the highlight of the evening, the opening trombones glowed while the cor anglais had a poignant radiance; the soft strings shimmered producing an incandescent sensation, leaving the audience enthralled. The strings in the Scherzo had an appropriate ruggedness whilst the horns, timpani and triangle had a cutting brilliance. Mackerras conducted with swagger and aplomb, securing buoyant rhythms and a lilting grace. The trumpets and perfectly pitched horns glowed divinely in the opening of the Allegro con fuoco and again Mackerras brought out an urgent sense of forward momentum and vibrancy, producing warmly expressive string and woodwind playing. The concluding trombones punctuated with a menacing bite, to be followed by the concluding E-major chord from the horns dwindling into nothingness.


This was both a revealing and a glowing 'New World.' As an apt encore, we were offered Dvorák's Slavonic Dance Number 15 which was performed at whirlwind speed and with a joyous gusto, ending the Prom on a positive note, as all birthday parties should.


Alex Russell



Further listening:



Dvorák Scherzo capriccioso; Carnival Overture; Symphony No.9, 'New World', Philharmonia Orchestra, Carlo Maria Giulini (conductor): EMI: CDE: 7 677712.


Dvorák Violin Concert; Maxim Vengerov, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim (conductor); Brahms Violin Concerto, Maxim Vengerov, New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Kurt Masur (conductor): Elatus: 2564 60806-2.


Dvorák Symphony No.9 'New World', Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Istvan Kertesz (conductor); Smetana, Ma Vlast, Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Istvan Kertesz (conductor): DECCA Week End Classics: 417 678-2.





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