This superb second-night-of-the-Proms evening of Bohemian music left me wishing that we could hear the deeply individual sounds of the Bamberger Symphoniker and Smetana’s Má vlast far more frequently than we do. In Smetana’s six-part epic in particular, Jakub Hrůša made the strongest possible case for what he describes as “the greatest piece of programme music of the 19th century”, while I can’t recall having ever seen an orchestra enjoy themselves as much as the Bambergers tonight.

Jakub Hrůša © Chris Christodoulou
Jakub Hrůša
© Chris Christodoulou

Part of his approach to the score was apparent before the first note was played, with forces of Wagnerian proportions assembling on stage. Woodwinds, horns, trumpets and trombones were all doubled, the latter split either side of tuba, and four harps stood proudly in pairs on opposite sides of the stage. The magical effect of such luxurious harp logistics was immediately appreciable in the cross-stage conversation of Vyšehrad’s opening moments. A golden glow blossomed from the brass, and the strings played with a slow bloom built up from a rich bass sound. There was plenty of punch, too, throughout the 80-minute work, with the orchestra playing at the very tip of Hrůša‘s beat. There was also drama aplenty, not least in the decadence of doubled wind and harps, but also in some entertainingly theatrical pauses and a shattering first movement climax capped by tripled crash cymbals.

The suite’s most famous movement, Vltava, was extraordinarily fluid in its relatively quick-paced flute and clarinet duets, melodic lines being handed between colleagues with seamless transition. The more folksy passages were good-heartedly brash with a touching innocence. From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields was similarly bucolic in outlook. Some remarkably soft, almost inaudible pianissimos gave the ensuing folk tune a sense of modest nobility, while entertainingly swooping portamento kept things firmly in the spirit of the countryside.

Between these two poems of attractive lyricism, Šárka was full of fire in its furiously quick trumpet triplets, and the final two poems closed things in suitably epic fashion. Tábor’s brass and timpani calls were slammed out with uncompromising brutality, the latter’s strokes crashing down from high above head-height. Amid the drama, though, there was a constant sense that the musicians were enjoying the evening as much as anyone in the hall. The strings moved as one on their seats, and woodwinds danced around their folk tunes with gusto. Conducted entirely from memory, this was Smetana with all the drama of Mahler, the theatre of Wagner and the pastoralism of Dvořák.

Joshua Bell and Jakub Hrůša © Chris Christodoulou
Joshua Bell and Jakub Hrůša
© Chris Christodoulou

Though this was a lengthy concert with a first half of Dvořák’s Violin Concerto in A minor, the evening never once dragged. Joshua Bell was soloist for the first of three successive nights of violin concertos, with Barber to follow on Monday and Britten on Tuesday. The orchestral soundscape was completely different to the Smetana, with a desk of strings shaved off, non-doubled woodwind and a much drier sound with minimal vibrato. The woodwind and horn calls were stark, rather than over-varnished and the Rondo finale danced with infectiously innocent good cheer. Amid the strife of the first movement, Bell’s sound was attractively delicate, and his freely spacious playing in the slow movement made for some memorably beautiful moments before the music faded into its warm sunset. The transparent orchestral textures revealed a wealth of detail in the finale, which carried an irresistible life energy in its stride, ultimately galloping ebulliently to its close amid timpani fireworks.

This was a brilliantly executed programme of Czech music played with genuine warmth, not least in two encores from The Bartered Bride and a Dvořák Miniature Romantic Piece with the orchestra’s Concertmaster and Principal Viola.

****1