Prague Castle and Charles Bridge from the Vltava © Eeva
Prague Castle and Charles Bridge from the Vltava
© Eeva
Among Prague’s nicknames is the soubriquet “the crown of the world”. The Prague Spring International Music Festival is certainly a jewel in that crown. First held in 1946, when the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra celebrated its 50th anniversary, the festival is a key event in Europe’s classical music calendar. It was the inspiration of the great Rafael Kubelík, who was Chief Conductor of the CPO at the time. Two years after its inception, Kubelík defected to the West after the Communist coup of February 1948, vowing never to return until his country was liberated. Following the 1989 ‘Velvet’ Revolution, a frail Kubelík returned to conduct the opening concert of the 1990 Festival. It featured – as it has since 1953 – Smetana’s Má vlast, a patriotic set of six symphonic poems. The emotionally-charged concert swiftly assumed legendary status.

Opening concert of the 2014 Prague Spring Festival: Czech Philharmonic/ Jiří Bělohlávek © Ivan Malý
Opening concert of the 2014 Prague Spring Festival: Czech Philharmonic/ Jiří Bělohlávek
© Ivan Malý
When Má vlast opens the 70th festival on 12 May (the anniversary of Smetana’s death), expectations will run high. The work holds special significance for Czechs, but in recent decades its performance at the Prague Spring Festival has occasionally been offered its to visiting orchestras. In 1996, the London Classical Players under Sir Roger Norrington became the first non-Czech orchestra to open the festival. This year, the NDR Sinfonieorchester are awarded the honour of playing Má vlast, conducted by Principal Conductor Thomas Hengelbrock.

The Festival attracts an enticing roster of visiting orchestras. The St Petersburg Philharmonic, under the indefatigable Yuri Temirkanov, gives a pair of concerts which feature the music of Dmitri Shostakovich, including the ‘Leningrad’ Symphony, completed during World War II while the city (where Shostakovich served as a volunteer firefighter) was under siege. Debate still rages about the symphony’s true meaning, the composer (through Solomon Volkonv’s not entirely reliable biographer) suggesting the Leningrad depicted in the symphony was the one "that Stalin destroyed and Hitler merely finished off."

Sir Antonio Pappano and the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia offer a heady mix of Tchaikovsky, anniversary composer Sibelius and their native Verdi. Sibelius’ Symphony no. 2 is a rugged, strongly nationalistic work, often associated with Finland’s struggle for independence. An Italianate approach, with the warm Santa Cecilian strings, will be intriguing.

Sir Antonio Pappano © Musacchio & Ianniello | EMI Classics
Sir Antonio Pappano
© Musacchio & Ianniello | EMI Classics
The Budapest Festival Orchestra always attracts an enthusiastic following. Under Iván Fischer, it performs Mozart’s ‘Jeunehomme’ Concerto with Maria João Pires, before tackling Brahms First Symphony. Fischer’s Brahms has garnered plenty of critical praise, not least at last summer’s BBC Proms [review link], so this concert is a definite festival highlight. The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic are another to have opened the festival. This season, with Vasily Petrenko, they close it, performing another Czech classic, Dvorak’s sunny Seventh Symphony. From Austria, the Wiener Akademie and Martin Haselböck present Schubert’s Symphony no.9 in C major, and are joined by Elisabeth Wallfisch for Beethoven’s titanic Violin Concerto.

Hamburg meets London in a watery offering from the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin. Its concert features Telemann’s Hamburger Ebb und Fluth and Handel’s Water Music, both celebratory pieces of Baroque music, composed just six years apart. More Baroquery comes from the Bach Collegium Japan, with celebrated Bach scholar and conductor Masaaki Suzuki at the helm. They present an all-Bach programme of concerti and cantatas.

But the central to the Prague Spring Festival are Czech orchestras. Jiří Bělohlávek and the forces of the Czech Philharmonic perform Mahler’s epic Third Symphony, the longest symphony in the standard repertoire. The CPO also plays a concert under the direction of Jukka-Pekka Saraste, which includes Erich Korngold voluptuous Violin Concerto, with soloist Vilde Frang. The Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra and Prague Symphony Orchestra are also involved, the latter in a concert of “Celluloid Music”, which includes Korngold’s music for the film The Adventures of Robin Hood. The Prague SO also give the Czech première of Rautavaara’s Symphony no. 6 “Vincentiana”, which uses themes from his opera about Vincent van Gogh.

Rudolfinum © Zdeněk Chrapek
Rudolfinum
© Zdeněk Chrapek
Opera plays a part of the Festival. Janáček’s From the House of the Dead and Strauss’ Salome are presented at the National Theatre and Prague State Opera respectively, but there are also a pair of contemporary operas; Slovak composer Ľubica Čekovská’s Dorian Gray (based, like Salome, on Oscar Wilde) premiered in November 2013. Set to a libretto by Kate Pullinger, it deals with the relentless desire for perpetual youth. Jan Klusák’s Philoctetes (based on Sophocles) is given its world première at the Festival. Owing to his unhealing, foetid wound, Philoctetes is outcast by his fellow warriors and left stranded by Odysseus on a deserted island. Yet after finding out that according to a prophecy they cannot conquer Troy without him, the Greeks visit Philoctetes so as to retrieve his bow...

There are a number of chamber events, from morning concerts to late night recitals to relish. Pianists Paul Lewis (in Beethoven’s last three sonatas) and Murray Perahia are sure to be a big draw. Chamber groups of note rostered to appear include the Afflatus Wind Quintet and the Zemlinsky String Quartet.

From the operatic stage to small scale chamber recitals, the Prague Spring Festival has something for everyone. Throw in the spectacular backdrop of the historic Czech capital and it makes the perfect late spring getaway.