Rain did nothing to dampen the high spirits at the Czech Philharmonicʼs midsummer outing at Sychrov Castle in the Bohemian countryside. The audience sat happily under parkas and umbrellas, the crisp fresh air felt invigorating (especially without face masks), and at a propitious moment during Mendelssohnʼs Midsummer Nightʼs Dream, a rainbow appeared in the sky. After months in quarantine, the muses were smiling again.

Semyon Bychkov © Petra Hajska
Semyon Bychkov
© Petra Hajska

Like many orchestras, the Czech Philharmonic was not idle during the shutdown. Tours had to be canceled, schedules rearranged and, as quickly as possible, benefits staged. After making broadcast arrangements with Czech Television, the orchestra gave its first benefit performance to an empty hall at the Rudolfinum in late March, raising more than 7 million crowns for five hospitals. About half of the 500 guests at Sychrov Castle for the orchestraʼs fourth benefit concert were workers from those hospitals, accepting the thanks of a grateful nation watching at home.

Summer concerts are typically more relaxed, offering lighter fare at an easy pace. There was none of that in this performance. The orchestra was in mid-season form, sharp and fiery, beautifully responsive to every nuance from Chief Conductor Semyon Bychkov. Rather than watching a creaky restart, it was like being taken for a ride in a machine as fine-tuned as the midnight blue, mint-condition 1932 Škoda luxury touring car parked next to the stage.

Mendelssohn opened the program, with strings that sounded luxuriant even through loudspeakers. Bychkov brings an intensity to everything he conducts, which propelled his picturesque treatment of this piece, brimming with color and swirling with melodies that danced like fireflies. Only two movements were played, and with a pause for a presentation between the overture and Scherzo, it was hard to create much atmosphere. Coming after the break, the Scherzo seemed to have a bit less snap – though in fairness, that may have been the increasingly soggy conditions. Overall, the music was rendered with more fervor and substance than this Dream usually gets.

Sychrov Castle © Petra Hajska
Sychrov Castle
© Petra Hajska

Haydnʼs Trumpet Concerto in E flat major served as an introduction to soloist Stanislav Masaryk, who will occupy the first trumpet chair when the orchestra starts the new season in September. Masaryk brings a smooth technique and polished sound, which will be interesting to hear across a range of pieces and periods. For Haydn, it was not as bright as one typically hears, at times almost understated. Technically, Masaryk was superb, but in expression and flair he was outshone by the orchestra – which is not a negative comment on either. Bychkovʼs accompaniment was so vibrant and graceful, itʼs hard to imagine anyone but an early music specialist matching it.

After another round of awards and speeches, the stage was clear for Bychkov to spread his wings and launch into a commanding version of Beethovenʼs Symphony no. 5. The tempo was brisk, with none of the usual pauses that lend the piece so much of its drama. Under Bychkovʼs baton the music tumbled along, gathering momentum and drawing its impact from especially deep reaches into the lower register. At one point in the first movement, it sounded like a lion roaring. Bychkov let the music relax and breathe in the second movement, drawing out lingering horns. But the respite was short, as the final movements soared to majestic heights with an energy that seemed as if the storms had moved from the sky to the stage. By the final notes, the music felt supercharged.

Some concerts are more than the sum of their parts, and that was certainly the case with this one. The impressive performance, historic backdrop, refreshing rain and audience of medical heroes all combined to create a rare and memorable experience. And did a bird perched in a nearby tree really imitate one of the trills in the cadenza in the Haydn concerto? If not, this critic needs to get out more and in touch with the real world again. As do we all.

****1