Although conflict forced two of three featured composers to flee Europe, this was an extremely local programme, all three composers being born in, or near, Brno.

Fiercely nationalistic, Leoš Janáček's music is shaped by Czech speech rhythms. Nevertheless, he was a fan of the giants of Russian literature. His 1928 Z mrtvého domu (From the House of the Dead) is based on what Anthony Burton's succinctly informative programme note describes as “Dostoyevsky's fictionalised reminiscences” of four Siberian months of 1861.

Jiří Bělohlávek © Abu Dhabi Festival
Jiří Bělohlávek
© Abu Dhabi Festival
The Prelude to this opera began life as a violin concerto, which was evident from the opening bars featuring Czech Philharmonic leader Josef Špaček and his desk partner in some very virtuosic playing. Prison atmosphere was conjured by rhythmic chain clanking. One stick-out moment in this very Slavic-sounding rondo movement was a brass and wind figure highly reminiscent of Janáček's earlier Sinfonietta. Jiří Bělohlávek and the Czech Philharmonic captured alternately the work's dark tensions and those lighter moments which Janáček described as “the spark of God”.

From the solo violin's opening bars of Lydian Mode yearning in Korngold's 1945 Violin Concerto, Op.35, two things were obvious: his enduring influence on Hollywood film music and that soloist Nicola Benedetti was at one with the music's romantic leanings. Korngold would surely have been admired by the New England Transcendentalists of his adopted America for his striving for unity within diversity; this concerto features themes from four of his 1930s film scores. There were some lovely orchestral touches in the opening Moderato nobile, including bowed solo violin offset by pizzicato orchestral violins. This movement's cadenza was much more assertive than earlier music, featuring dramatic double stopping which Benedetti attacked energetically.

Nicola Benedetti © Simon Fowler
Nicola Benedetti
© Simon Fowler
The central Romance: Andante opened with some lovely soaring melodic work, beautifully rendered by Benedetti. This was later very effectively offset by growlier, lower-register work. This movement also boasted some admirable touches of orchestral craft. The eight double basses, perched above the orchestra, were withheld in the opening bars, causing their later entry to register all the more as it simultaneously soared above and underpinned the orchestra. Sparing use of vibraphone enhanced the otherworldly quality of this movement's later moments.

Throughout the first two movements one could hear the influence of Korngold's early mentor, Mahler. The rousing Finale: Allegro assai vivace was more of a pot pourri of influences and associations. I was reminded variously of Holst's Mercury, the theme from Radio 4's The Archers and the unholy hybrid of a Christmas carol and a hoedown. Following the romantic music of the preceding movements, more vigorous playing was called for and duly delivered. Soaring legato passages were now replaced by forceful, detached articulation and a great sense of fun, especially in the closing bars. Benedetti, always warmly received by a home crowd, was cheered loudly and lastingly by this more international assembly.

Czech Philharmonic © Václav Jirásek
Czech Philharmonic
© Václav Jirásek
Anthony Burton's programme note described Bohuslav Martinů's influences as including “the Classical tradition, the Baroque concerto, the Renaissance madrigal, Czech folk music, Stravinskian neo-classicism and jazz”. Unsurprisingly, this can result in music of startling contrast. However, if his Symphony no. 4, composed in the second quarter of 1945, is anything to go by, there is great artistry in his synthesis of such disparate elements. A similar level of artistry was on show in this fine performance. Bělohlávek's tight rein on dynamics and the orchestra's fine articulation resulted in a committed, energetic account. This was especially true of the second movement, a Scherzo in all but name. Its syncopated 6/8 themes skipped along, the first of these being expressively aired by solo bassoon, who later featured in a lovely duo moment with solo oboe.

The jauntiness of this movement was wonderfully offset by the following Largo, in which the Czech Philharmonic's beautifully hazy string playing was later contrasted by much barer writing for woodwind. Woodwind scoring and playing was intriguing; although the organ gallery was full of spectators, I found myself looking there more than once for the phantom organist who seemed to be piping up.

In the very syncopated Poco allegro which ends the symphony, one could hear the influence of Stravinsky; perhaps unsurprisingly, many such moments featured woodwind. This was a very committed performance which will surely prompt much further exploration of this underrated composer.

Such was the audience reception that we were treated to two encores: a suitably frolicsome Dance of the Comedians from Smetana's The Bartered Bride and, to allow us to sleep, Oskar Nedbal's Valse Triste. Before leaving the stage the musicians engaged in a Czech Philharmonic tradition – one of those unusual moments where the formal trumps the informal for affection: the musicians shook hands with their desk partners.

****1