William WALTON (1902-1983)
Scapino; overture (1940) [8:19]
Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)
Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major Op. 26 (1917-21) [28:37]
Miloslav KABELÁČ (1908-1979)
Reflections Op.49 [15:13] ¹
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Rapsodie espagnole (1907-08) [16:26]
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Slavonic Dances, op.72 (1887) - No.15 [3:05]
Peter Katin (piano)
Prague Symphony Orchestra/Zdeněk Košler
Prague Symphony Orchestra/Václav Smetáček ¹
rec. live 8 February 1967, Royal Festival Hall (Walton, Prokofiev) , 6 March 1968 Royal Festival Hall (Kabeláč), 13 February 1967, Albert Hall, Nottingham (Ravel, Dvořák)

Souvenirs of Czech and other orchestras’ visits to Britain in the 1960s are advancing in fascinatingly ardent ranks via this small outfit. One advantage is the opportunity thus accorded to the Brno or, as here, to the Prague Symphony, bands that toured frequently at the time but which were on a lesser known footing than the monolithic esteem garnered by the Czech Phil. If that addresses a historic wrong in this respect, well and good. Those who know these orchestras principally for their work with native music, on Supraphon and Panton, can now hear them on tour, stretching out, taking repertoirial risks - being an orchestra, in other words, and not the necessarily distorted ensemble one imagines from their recordings of Czech music. It’s not as if they played only Fibich and Dvořák all week long.

Take for instance the Royal Festival Hall performance of Walton’s Scapino presided over by Zdeněk Košler. This bristling, bustling curtain-raiser to the February 1967 concert announces an unabashed salute to the host’s own traditions. The cymbal swishes register powerfully as the band dips their collective tail into the vitality and caprice of Walton’s saucy opus. It’s a feature of the series that we cannot, in the main, hear whole concerts; that would involve two disc sets. But the Walton was followed by Peter Katin’s splendidly imaginative and digitally elevated performance of Prokofiev’s Third Concerto. Some Czech composers of the mid-century had a virtual obsession with Prokofiev, and this was partially at least reflected in performances, so it’s no surprise to find the Prague Symphony touring this work. In Katin they had a splendid exponent, whose legerdemain is matched by an acute structural sense, and whose tonal qualities are laudable. The ensemble between pianist and orchestra is pretty solid. The piano’s treble sonorities against the high winds are a notably successful feature of a recording that in no small degree manages to bring some warmth to the hall’s acoustic. Katin’s take on the slow movement is very different from the composer’s own laconic brilliance - but that’s true of almost all subsequent traversals. And as befits the man who so successfully brought us a famed Khachaturian concerto with Hugo Rignold for Everest, Katin and his Czech colleague play with dynamism and witty hauteur in the finale. The keen edge to the orchestra’s sound bites nicely.

Kabeláč’s Reflections was conducted by Václav Smetáček at the same hall, the following year. It’s a variational work, ranging from Bardic fanfares, to percussion militancy to rather more filmic inspirations. A piano is integrated into the sound spectrum. We hear a fusion of cool reflection and swirling advance. There’s certainly plenty of colour and incident, and it could even be the film music for some tough, black and white Czech historical epic, albeit one of a somewhat more radical caste of mind.

The Ravel is hardly Stokowskian in its sense of fantasy or colour. There’s a sound blip at 2:22 where things lose focus very briefly. Later at 14:27 the sound flickers and only really re-establishes itself a minute later. This is a notably well-drilled performance however, with the brass on strong, engaged form, the strings hardly evincing luxurious Philadelphian arch but offering instead their own more contained perspectives. The encore is Dvořák, from the same concert. Fizzy and exciting!

So ends another engaging entrant that offers an overture, a concerto, two symphonic works and an encore.

Jonathan Woolf

Another engaging entrant ... see Full Review