Nationalism is no sin at the Dvořák’s Prague festival, which opens every year on the composer’s birthday with a mission to celebrate and keep alive the legacy of Bohemia’s favorite son. Yet even amid the strains of his two most well-known and influential works – the Cello Concerto in B minor and New World Symphony – there’s no missing the international scope and appeal of his music. Both of those pieces were written while Dvořák was living and working in America during the 1890s. And a German orchestra and Spanish cellist played them with aplomb.

Pablo Ferrández
© Dvořák's Prague | Petra Hajská

If the results were less than satisfying, it was more of a mechanical than a musical problem. Under the baton of Myung-whun Chung, the Munich Philharmonic showed why it ranks among Europe’s finest orchestras. And Pablo Ferrández is a star on the rise, playing with a maturity and grace well beyond his 31 years. Yet their performance was like watching two trains run on parallel tracks, never fated to intersect or merge.

The Munich Philharmonic lives large, traveling with nearly 100 players who were barely able to fit on the Rudolfinum stage. Any soloist would have trouble being heard above an ensemble that size and Ferrández came with an advantage that turned out to be a liability. His talent and promise are such that he is the keeper of two Stradivarii, the 1696 “Lord Aylesford” and 1689 “Archinto”. The latter, which he brought to Prague, has an incredibly rich, warm tone – when you can hear it. It’s simply not made for a modern concert hall, much less keeping up with a big orchestra, which drowned it out during much of this performance.

But there was no missing Ferrández’ exceptional style and skill. He rarely looks at his hands or even his instrument when he plays, closing his eyes, throwing back his head and feeling the music. Which made his technical finesse even more striking, in particular his masterly, precise use of vibrato during the quieter moments of the Adagio. If his interpretation was straightforward and the emotional depth not very deep, that was in keeping with an overall cooler, cleaner version of Dvořák that one typically hears from visiting musicians.

Myung-whun Chung conducts the Munich Philharmonic
© Dvořák's Prague | Petra Hajská

That fit Chung’s approach, which was colorful but cool, a smart treatment without much heart. Many conductors are willing to take a back seat during concertos, casting the orchestra in a supportive role. In this case Chung did not, treating the orchestra and soloist as equals. That produced some vivid orchestral passages, and remarkably tight work from such a large group. But at times it sounded like the orchestra and soloist were in competition, straining to be ahead of or heard over one another rather than forging a unified sound.

Chung’s focus in the symphony was almost entirely on melody, rendering it as a smooth, continuous flow unencumbered by detail or articulation. That’s one way to handle the music, and certainly no one is going to complain about taking a pleasant ride with the master of melody. But it robs the piece of any drama or bite. No sweeping vistas, no thrill of new horizons, and not much contrast between the peaks of passion and lulls of tenderness – except in the volume, which was even louder than the concerto. The music glimmered and glowed and took on a distinctive rhythm in Chung’s hands, but never rose far above the ordinary.

Except as a demonstration of its elasticity. Visiting orchestras and soloists offer a reminder that one of the reasons Dvořák’s music has endured is because, like all great art, it is open to endless interpretation. And for all its flaws, this one was a worthy addition to grand tradition.

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