Sometimes the remedy for an extremely fast-paced life is a mellow afternoon in a fabulous concert hall. So it was that on Sunday, the Orchestra of the Berlin Konzerthaus put on a program featuring Dvořák at his most pastoral.

Konzerthausorchester Berlin with Iván Fischer © Marco Borggreve
Konzerthausorchester Berlin with Iván Fischer
© Marco Borggreve

Led by Iván Fischer and featuring soprano Anna Lucia Richter and mezzo Olivia Vermeulen, the program was devoted entirely to Dvořák. An afternoon in the countryside was depicted during the first half of the program: the Legend in C sharp minor, Slavonic Dances from Op. 46 and Op. 72, the Nocturne Op. 40 and the Suite in A major were interspersed with Czech folksongs “Možnost”, “Na tej našej střeše”, “Věneček” and “Hoře”.

The soloists, Richter and Vermeulen, combined lyricism with a crisp, clean sound, so that the Czech words of the songs were clearly audible, so that the audience heard individual words, not just sounds. Richter’s soprano is light and clear, with just enough heft to keep it from sounding girlish. Vermeulen’s mezzo is deep and full and sweet as honey. Together they painted an idealized, nostalgic a picture of a lost Bohemia.

The Konzerthaus Orchestra, under Iván Fischer’s baton, was clear and smooth and clean. Despite occasional, barely noticeable problems from the winds, the overall effect was one of calm. As one English tourist said during the intermission, “I feel as though they are making a concerted effort to soothe me”. Indeed.

The second half of the program was made up of Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony, written when he was living in Bohemia and dedicated to the Emperor Franz Joseph. Cheery and light, it draws much from its composer’s Czech background, and features two moments that make the modern audience member grin: a faint, fast reference to the famous Psycho strings in the first movement and a brief reference to the Addams Family theme in the second. Naturally, neither of these pieces existed at the time of composition, but the idea that 1950s era Hollywood composers listened to and were inspired by Dvořák is both hilarious and entirely plausible.

As played by the Konzerthaus Orchestra, the Eighth Symphony depicted a swirling cityscape of sound. If the first half of the evening was a walk in the country, the second half depicted life in a city: the first movement, Allegro con brio, was big and bustling, all wild brass and strings (and that hint of a future Norman Bates). The second movement, Adagio, used minor keys to create an eerie tone, as if hope and fear were mixing. The third movement, Allegretto grazioso, was much more flippant, a danceable, almost waltzing sound that seemed to depict a wacky, off-kilter household, where servants sneak tastes of the champagne and the overly romantic daughter deals with her pompous father. In keeping with this picture, the last movement, Allegro ma non troppo, blasted forth a triumphant brass fanfare, all pomp and circumstance from the strings as the flutes swirled underneath like so many valets hurrying to ensure that their lordly masters didn’t make fools of themselves. The flute did seem a little lost among the strings at one point, but this was more the composer’s fault than the flautist’s.

In all, it was a fun and relaxing afternoon at the symphony. The Konzerthaus Orchestra played with competence and cheek, painting aural pictures for the audience while soothing and stimulating them. Iván Fischer, conducting without any scores, seemed to enjoy himself, and the ovations were long and loud. A lovely way to spend a Sunday afternoon.