The Czech Philharmonic has had something of an eventful history since its first concert, given under the baton of Antonín Dvořák in 1896. Since then, the orchestra has been conducted by a number of distinguished musicians, including Gustav Mahler. The turbulent history of this great orchestra is perhaps a reflection of the political upheavals that have taken place in their homeland: there have been numerous artistic upheavals and frequent replacements of chief conductors. The incumbent, Jiří Bělohlávek, was first appointed in 1990 but resigned in 1992 after an orchestral reorganisation. He was re-appointed in 2012 after no fewer than five conductors had been in the role since his first appointment.

Jiří Bělohlávek with the Czech Philharmonic © Martin Kovář
Jiří Bělohlávek with the Czech Philharmonic
© Martin Kovář

Bělohlávek was the conductor here in Birmingham in the first concert in a tour of a number of UK concert halls. I was not prepared for the sound of this astonishing orchestra. The opening bars of Smetana’s tone poem From Bohemia’s Meadows and Forests feature a blast of full orchestral sound in glorious technicolour orchestration. This is no gentle pastoral scene as may have been imagined by Beethoven, more a bursting evocation of joyous folk celebration. The almost obsessive ostinatos anticipate the slightly weird sound-world of Janáček. The orchestra tore into these opening bars and immediately filled the hall with their sumptuous sound. The string sound was at once muscular and velvety, yet the wind players never had difficulty conveying their characteristic personalities.

It was refreshing to hear this instalment of Smetana’s epic cycle of tone poems Má Vlast, instead of the more frequently played Vltava. Like the latter tone poem, tonight’s is successful as a standalone concert item. It was obvious from their smiles that the players never tire of playing this music, particularly the rambunctious central polka. The coda arrives after a furious string unison variation on the opening ostinato, which had a terrifying bite in the hands of these players.

Hélène Grimaud joined the orchestra for a not entirely successful performance of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto. Bělohlávek’s accompaniment was characteristically unfussy, an approach which paid dividends in a recent recording with a different orchestra and soloist. The first movement here was a rather unsettled experience and it was hard to pinpoint the reason for this. It may be that Grimaud’s interpretation had not had sufficient time to settle down given that this was the first night of their tour together. There was certainly a palpable discord between her approach and the orchestra’s. Bělohlávek was attentive but wind entries were a little too frequently late in their discursive interactions with Grimaud, who had a tendency to throw phrase endings carelessly away.

Matters improved in the lovely central Adagio with orchestra and soloist coming together as one. Grimaud displayed a real depth of feeling here and the seamless transition into the rollicking final Rondo was utterly convincing. This was taken at quite a lick and, despite the last degree of unanimity between soloist and orchestra being again absent, the concerto came to an agreeable conclusion.

The orchestra was back on home territory for Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony. The placement of the violas on the outside right of the orchestra meant that these highly vocal and sweet-sounding players were heard in all their glory throughout the symphony, not least in the opening of the piece. Bělohlávek’s interpretation was for the most part straightforward and quite hard driven. The climaxes in all the movements were tremendously exciting with horns and trumpets tastefully given their heads.

The timbre of the almost hymnal opening to poco adagio could have passed for a saxophone but was, in fact, a combination of this orchestra’s distinctive-sounding horns and clarinets. The movement came to a close with a magical hushed chord and the subtlest of portamento slides downwards from the violins. The scherzo is rather tricky to execute in practice but the Czechs began it both stylishly and effortlessly, with every detail audible despite a formidably swift tempo. Bělohlávek let Dvořák’s characteristic cross-rhythms be felt rather than conducted. The central trio was not the quietest I have heard but the transition back to the scherzo section was thrilling, with machine-gun precise horns. The final movement was taken immediately in the wake of the scherzo and by this point the thrill factor was at maximum level. Again, tempi were quite hard driven with Bělohlávek slowing ever so slightly for the dance-like second subject.

The sound of this orchestra is very hard to put into words. It is founded on a visceral bass sound, no doubt assisted by the eight double bass players ranged along the back of the stage, playing with great animation. Bělohlávek sustained the tension in the movement and built towards the thrilling and unexpected major key climax in such a way that the final chords sounded utterly convincing.