While there was an obvious connection to their homeland in the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra’s programme at Symphony Hall, the more pressing emphasis in all three works was of their respective composers audibly grappling with a problem. For Mozart, the challenge in his Don Giovanni overture was to hint at the terrifying end to which the opera and its eponymous protagonist were ultimately heading, without giving the game away and ruining the story’s shock value. The result is a precarious exercise in misdirection: an introduction of sinister insinuations, delivered in somewhat muffled fashion, before focusing on the work’s cheerful, upbeat melodies. Focusing, indeed, at length: Mozart’s efforts to perfect this misdirection – implying that the opera to follow is all about fun and japes – extends to the kind of obsessive motivic display that would prove so influential on Beethoven.

Tomáš Netopil © Marco Borggreve
Tomáš Netopil
© Marco Borggreve

Does it matter that the work doesn’t end properly? If it does, it’s a concern that only makes that malevolent opening music feel yet more distant and irrelevant. Furthermore, conductor Tomáš Netopil took the work at such a brusque, nonchalant lick that those sinister hints were nicely consigned to oblivion. It was an approach Netopil would use throughout the concert, to increasingly striking effect.

It’s well known that Dvořák regarded the idea of a cello concerto as inherently problematic, unconvinced that the instrument was suitable for concerto treatment and refusing repeated requests to compose one. His subsequent Cello Concerto in B minor is perhaps best regarded not so much as a putative solution as a statement of that problem. In concertos, the relationship between soloist and orchestra can be many things, from a disagreeable slanging match to a love-in, and in order to mitigate things as much as possible, Dvořák’s work – appropriately for a performance on Valentine’s Day – falls decisively at the latter end of that continuum.

Despite the cosy, collaborative nature of the relationship, Netopil gallantly deferring to Alisa Weilerstein throughout, this wasn’t enough to prevent the cello from being swamped by the orchestra from time to time, particularly during Dvořák’s busy forays into the lowest register of the instrument. Elsewhere, though, the work’s lush, dreamy lyricism genuinely caught fire, soloist and orchestra navigating lovely subsequent reductions into its more fragile, tremulous music, at which point Weilerstein looked positively heartbroken. This curious, rapid interplay of triumph and what felt like a kind of tired sadness underlined how unpredictable Dvořák was in his approach to structure. Here, too, one felt that if cello and orchestra hadn’t been so demonstrably on the same team, the piece would have collapsed entirely. Less so in the fascinating second movement, where its ostensibly simple surface was questioned by more convoluted harmonic scheming underneath. Here, Netopil was so relaxed that the music seemed a little flat; one wondered if this might be among the perils of a national orchestra becoming over-familiar with one of their most famous exports.

Not, though, in the final movement, where Weilerstein and Netopil both acted as though Dvořák’s unexpected breaks in the narrative were entirely unremarkable. In the process they brought about another misdirection akin to that in the Mozart, where a heraldic brass outburst, apropos of absolutely nothing, worked as a distraction to effect a large-scale shift in the entire musical attitude. It was only in hindsight that the sleight of hand became apparent, and while the performance laid bare the issues that had concerned Dvořák, his ingenuity in the attempt to resolve them was no less apparent or impressive.

Netopil’s nonchalance was nowhere more rewarding than in his direction of Dvořák’s Symphony no. 9. What the Czech Philharmonic conveyed in this most renowned of symphonies was an undeniably exuberant national pride, yet eschewing any sense of sentimentality. More than being merely efficient, however, Netopil teased out a performance that was cogent, succinct, transparent, always pushing the orchestra on, at no point – not even in the famous cor anglais melody, surely one of the greatest in the canon – allowing the players to milk or over-egg the material. It was, in fact, an entirely ‘non-dairy’ performance, focusing on the meat of Dvořák’s music: the large glancing blows that slice through the music’s momentum and crank up the emotional weight; the ambiguity of shading, constantly tilting between major and minor; the obsession with motifs as a means to lengthy development and the creation of massive, overwhelming climaxes. Whereas in the Cello Concerto the players felt as if they became the composer’s mouthpiece, here they served as an invisible conduit for Dvořák’s authentic voice which, laden with poignancy, wistfulness and not a little cheek, emerged loud and clear.

The manner in which Tomáš Netopil and the Czech Philharmonic tackled these three pieces mirrored the tricky balance between emotional heft and intellectual coherence that their composers had had to grapple with to create the music in the first place. It could hardly have been more ideal.

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