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Dvořák: Steven Isserlis (cello), Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, Jakub Hrůša, Cadogan Hall, London, 31.10.2009 (BBr)

Dvořák: The Noonday Witch, op.108 (1896)
Cello Concerto in B minor, op.104 (1895)
Symphony No.7 in D minor, op.70 (1884/1885)

Whether by accident or design, it was the most felicitous programming that brought together these three works by the Czech master, all of them having a connection with London.

The Noonday Witch, a piece that the programme insisted on calling the Mid-Day Witch - I thought we’d been using the Noonday title long enough for it to have been accepted as standard – was given its first public performance under the baton of Sir Henry J Wood on 21 November 1896. Because of some confusion concerning the date of the première, Hans Wihan, for whom the work was written, didn’t give the first performance of the Cello Concerto: that fell to the English cellist Leo Stern, with the Orchestra of the Philharmonic Society, conducted by the composer, in Queen’s Hall, on 19 March 1896. The 7th Symphony was commissioned by the Philharmonic Society of London and the first performance was given by their orchestra, under the composer’s direction, on 22nd April 1885.

Whether purposeful or not, what a delightful piece of programming this show proved to be. The Czech Philharmonic has long been acknowledged as one of the world’s great orchestras and we must be grateful to the Zurich International Concert Series for bringing the ensemble to us.

The Noonday Witch was a brave choice for an opener, for it is not easy either to listen to or to interpret. The moods change quickly, and the piece never really settles into one kind of music for any length of time; in this respect it reminds me of Janáček’s The Fiddler’s Child (1912). Both conductor and orchestra brought out the drama and the pathos of the work howver and there was a feeling that they were all working with an old friend – perhaps they were. But I was still disappointed, as I was with the Concerto, which Isserlis played very well indeed, in that the sound seemed muffled and failed to ignite into any real brightness; the whole first half seemed suffused in a patina of grey. I wondered if this was because of the seat I was sitting in but the Symphony was bright and very clear. Indeed, the exact opposite of the first half, though I have no idea why this should be.

It was interesting to compare this performance of the 7th with the one given a couple of weeks ago, in the same hall, by the Royal Philharmonic under Grzegorz Nowak. Nowak delivered a powerhouse of a performance, especially highlighting the dark and dramatic side of the music, whereas tonight Hrůša, as he had done all evening, chose to spotlight the wealth of lyricism in the works. It matters little for both were fine performances and it is good to hear such fine, strong, music being given such different readings and surviving the contrasting approaches.

Whatever the reason for this strange sound anomaly, the show was a fine one, and it was our great, good, luck that we were privileged to hear this great orchestra playing music that is truly their own.

Bob Briggs

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