There was a certain feeling of irony among some concert-goers this evening that Dvořák was the dominant feature in two separate programmes, a composer whose sojourn in America had an enormous impact on musical life locally and a fruitful effect on his own output – a serendipitous cultural exchange. On the first evening after the conclusion of a divisive, brutish and distinctly uncivilised campaign for the American presidency, the Czech National Symphony Orchestra offered a welcome diversion in London as part of its UK tour.

Libor Pešek © IMG Artists
Libor Pešek
© IMG Artists

The CNSO this year celebrates the twenty-third anniversary since its founding by trumpeter Jan Hasenöhrl and while it has never managed to reach the heights of its big brother, the Czech Philharmonic, it has nonetheless steadily built a name for itself with regular tours and a loving preference for the music of its homeland. Veteran conductor Libor Pešek, its chief since 2007, has been a key part of its burgeoning success and his experience within the repertoire and relationship with the orchestra clearly shows.

The concert opened with “Z českých luhů a hájů” (From Bohemias Wood and Fields), the fourth of the six symphonic poems that comprise Má vlast, Smetana’s lavish depiction of his homeland. This poem, a rich and gentle portrait of Bohemia’s countryside, was given luminosity and clean textures by Pešek, and the orchestra captured the pastoral nature of the piece successfully. Violins had depth and the brass was steady, but the interpretation was a little too staid.

There was a similar issue with Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in B minor, a work conceived in America while the composer held the position of Director at the National Conservatory of Music. He had been under pressure to complete a cello concerto for some time, most notably from Hanuš Wihan, one of the leading cellists of the day and for whom Dvořák eventually composed his famous work. It stands out from the rest of the composer’s American oeuvre for its underlying Heimweh, a yearning for his Bohemia, but the CNSO suffered from an interpretation that was generally too polite and lacking grit, tutti sections stately but unemotional. Fortunately it was more than made up for by cellist Natalie Clein, whose entry struck a keen balance between the visceral and the lyrical. Every jagged draw of the bow in the Allegro packed an emotional punch; it was an unabashedly sentimental rendering, but an effective one. Clein was slightly less on target in the Adagio, fluctuating between the movement’s natural melancholy and a disconcerting earnestness, though she rallied for a deeply thoughtful, introspective conclusion to the movement. The highlight of the third movement was for me a fine duet between Clein and concertmaster Antonín Hradil, a sweet and responsive dialogue between the two. Clein’s clarity of tone brought colour to the exuberant finale as the composer twitches with joy at the thought of his journey home, while she brought an aptly haunting quality to her encore piece, Pablo Casals' signature piece, Song of the Birds.

And then to Dvořák’s Symphony no. 8 in G major, an unrelentingly cheerful work with a mission statement of anti-depression that charms and beguiles the ears. Pešek’s interpretation was glossy, but not shallow - though he maintained unremarkable balances of tempi and volume, there was texture and a sense of direction. The woodwind was particularly highlighted in the first and third movements, noteworthy for expansive and bright playing, while the brass throughout was mellow and smooth, rapt bursts from the trumpets opening the fourth movement with flair. Crisp playing from the violins in the Allegretto gave the waltz element a nice current of energy to counter the heavy melancholy of the scoring. A surprisingly raucous climax left a pleasing lightness in the spirit; a fine end to the evening.