Though one likes to swank around in foreign languages from time
to time — who doesn’t relish a diacritical or an umlaut now
and then? — on this occasion it’s a good thing that the Symfonický
orchestr hl. m. Prahy FOK is better known internationally as
the Prague Symphony Orchestra. In case you are wondering, the
orchestra, founded in 1934 by Rudolf Pekárek, had quite a wide
remit, hence the acronym FOK which stands for ‘Film-Opera-Koncert’.
The biggest name associated with the orchestra, and one who
was associated with it for decades, was the great conductor
Václav Smetáček. But Jirí Belohlávek directed it for over
a decade and many important Czech and Slovak conductors have
led it, not least Martin Turnovský and Ladislav Slovák. So it
has a prestigious history and continues to perform widely, and
Its current director is Jirí Kout, a fine musician, with an
acute ear across national boundaries. There’s no native music
in this disc. The notes make clear that this is a live recording
or at least recordings because two dates are given, the second
of which I assume is a repeat performance or, more likely, a
patch session. What the notes don’t tell you, but I can via
internet sleuthing, is that this was the first concert of the
FOK’s — it’s catching — 2010/11 season. So this disc is a kind
of celebratory affair.
One has to exercise caution here because, and one has to be
hard-hearted about this sort of thing, exactly who is going
to be interested in this programme? Kodály’s Galanta Dances
are standard fare, a recording of the Mozart Clarinet Concerto
is going to have to be very special to tempt buyers, and as
for the Eighth Symphony of Beethoven, where exactly does one
begin? These, I’m afraid, are the obvious ramifications of marketing
a disc such as this, and what may make a pleasing concert in
the Municipal House in Prague, is going to be of precisely no
interest to the general record buyer.
The performances are pleasing. They’re not at all sensational.
You won’t confuse Kout or the FOK with, say, Antal Dorati, or
even Ivan Fischer in the Dances. The music is pleasantly swung,
though there’s a slight lack of heft in the strings. There’s
an important role for the clarinet principal and the commitment
level is palpable throughout all sections of the orchestra.
The FOK’s principal clarinetist since 2006 turns out to be Jan
Mach and he walks to the front of the stage to perform the Mozart.
His tone is mellifluous and rounded, and his tempo instincts
are unimpeachable. Again it’s a solid, attractive, sensitive
performance. And so too is the Beethoven, in its way. If you
contrast Kout with Mackerras, himself a Prague regular, you
will notice that the outer movements are much lither in the
hands of the Anglo-Australian. Then, too, the ‘hard stick’ percussion
is more biting with Mackerras, and so is string stratification
and delineation. The more patrician Kout evokes Pastoral
symphony elements, which I happen to find attractive, and
he prefers a more leisurely approach with a heavier, more ‘massy’
string tone. Kout is actually far quicker in the scherzo, Mackerras
more stately, producing, arguably, more of a danceable Minuet.
So, maybe a tempter for fans of orchestra, soloist and/or conductor,
but really it’s not possible to recommend this disc beyond that