You don’t really need much of an excuse to go to Prague in springtime. The loveliness of the parks, the variegated architecture of the squares, the calm of the mighty Vltava river, the congenial atmosphere and quality of food and wine (and beer!) should be enough to tempt anyone. But just in case, the 2017 Prague Spring Festival throws in an aural banquet to tempt the palate of any classical music lover.

The Vltava © David Karlin
The Vltava
© David Karlin
After the amuse-bouche of an Informal Festival Prelude on May 11th, where we’re promised the unexpected, defying of tradition and flouting of dress code, formal proceedings start with two of the very biggest international names: Daniel Barenboim and the Vienna Philharmonic will play that most famous of all hymns to the Czech homeland: Smetana’s Má vlast.

Wiener Philharmoniker (Vienna Philharmonic) © Jun Keller
Wiener Philharmoniker (Vienna Philharmonic)
© Jun Keller
There’s more Czech music during the festival’s three weeks, ranging from the familiar (Dvořák, Smetana) to composers of  various eras known to the cognoscenti (Zelenka, Martinů, Srnka) to music you’re unlikely to have heard elsewhere (Krejčí, Svoboda). In this last category, there’s a most intriguing opera being performed at the National Theatre: Václav Kašlik’s Krakatit, an opera based on a science-fiction tale by Karel Čapek which “predicted the path of human civilisation to the very brink of extinction” and whose score fuses contemporary classical with electronics, jazz and pop. (Čapek’s other claims to fame are the invention of the word “robot” and, in the opera world, the story which became Janáček’s Makropulos Case).

Prague is very close to the exact central point of Europe, and there are also plenty of concerts with Czech musicians performing music from elsewhere around the continent. The Czech Philharmonic performs Strauss, Pärt and Rachmaninov’s Fourth Piano Concerto, with pianist Lukáš Vondrácek; the same orchestra performs Shostakovich’s “Babi Yar” Symphony, with Jiří Bělohlávek at the helm. On May 24th, the Brno Philharmonic performs Holst’s The Planets coupled with Schnittke’s Faust Cantata, with a strong set of Czech singers. The Prague Symphony Orchestra tackles Carl Nielsen’s Symphony “The Inextinguishable”; they also perform Prokofiev’s Symphony no. 7, as well as Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto and H K Gruber’s recent 3 MOB Pieces.

Krzysztof Penderecki © Ludwig van Beethoven Association | Bartosz Koziak
Krzysztof Penderecki
© Ludwig van Beethoven Association | Bartosz Koziak
It won’t have escaped you that Prague has a lot of top orchestras. The PKF Prague Philharmonia join in the fun to back a concert of opera arias from big names Nicolas Testé and Diana Damrau, who remains a big favourite of our US reviewers. But the highest profile event goes to the Prague Radio Symphony: the festival’s closing concert on June 2nd. Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki will be conducting his Symphony no. 7 “Seven Gates of Jerusalem”, written in 1997 to celebrate the city’s third millennium. The piece was originally branded as an oratorio and only later demarcated as a symphony: it’s built on an imposing scale and in the best tradition of large scale choral works. We’ve described Penderecki as “drawing a weighty and full sound” and “a rendition with wide range and telling detail” when conducting his own works.

Rudolfinum at sunset © David Karlin
Rudolfinum at sunset
© David Karlin
Despite the plentiful supply of local orchestras, there’s room for foreign guests. The Toronto Symphony Orchestra pairs Dvořák’s Symphony no. 7 with Brahms’s Violin Concerto, played by Maxim Vengerov; a second concert includes Bartók and Schumann. Baroque lovers will want to head for William Christie and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment playing a concert at the Rudolfinum whose appealing programme includes two of Bach’s orchestral suites and Rameau’s suite from Les Indes galantes. The Orchestre de Paris performs Canteloube and Ravel as well as the latter’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Considerably closer to their home, the Camerata Salzburg combines Mozart Piano concertos with Stravinsky. Most far-flung of all is the Shanghai Dance Theatre, who visit on May 23rd.

Vilde Frang © Marco Borggreve
Vilde Frang
© Marco Borggreve
The 27th and 28th of May are designated as “Chamber Music Weekend”, with an array of top Czech and international chamber groupings such as the Martinů Quartet and David Oistrakh Quartet. The “week-end” is actually something of a long weekend, since Friday 26th opens proceedings with a fine string trio led by violinist Vilde Frang, while Monday 29th pairs two fine string quartets: the Sacconi and the Wihan.

A preview like this can’t list every concert – you’ll have to see the full listings for that – but I’ll close by giving you a feel for the varied span of the festival in both scope and time. In scope, you can go from huge scale symphonic and choral works down to solo piano, passing by madrigalsto and flamenco to “tonadillas”, Spanish small scale works of the mid 18th century mainly devised for theatre interval performances.

In time: you can go back to the earliest classical music with the Theorbo / Baroque Guitar / Harpsichord combination of Concerto Zapico, or forward to the electronics-infused Musico-Technical Inventions concert on May 29th at the National Technical Museum or Anna Meredith’s Concerto for beatboxer and orchestra. Or you can span the ages with Collegium 1704 and the Bohuslav Martinů Philharmonic, playing harpsichord concertos by Bach and Martinů in the same concert, under the auspices of the Prague Spring International Music Competition. And you can't get much wider than that.


Article sponsored by Pražské jaro.