How does Sir John Eliot Gardiner feel about performing in an empty hall? “It grieves me terribly,” he said before taking the stage for a streamed concert with the Czech Philharmonic. “The energy and enthusiasm of an audience affect a performance enormously.” But for a few fortunate critics tucked away in the high reaches of the Rudolfinum, it was hard to tell the difference. Gardiner brought his own special energy and great enthusiasm for Czech music to a reunion that was refreshing in situ and in some ways even more satisfying online.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner in the Rudolfinum
© Petr Kadlec

Itʼs been a decade since Gardiner worked with the orchestra, and this was the first time he conducted the opening piece, Jan Václav Voříšekʼs Symphony in D major. Voříšek was a contemporary of Beethoven and a friend of Schubert, and there are echoes of both composers in the only symphony he wrote, which Gardiner handled with aplomb. Deftly weaving the grandeur of Beethoven with the lyricism of Schubert, Gardiner gave the piece its own personality – lively yet graceful, dominated by sweeping strings and propulsive percussion that soared, giving way occasionally to glowing woodwinds.

One of the few advantages of a well-staged performance online is the opportunity to see the conductor from the other side, facing the musicians. Viewers watching the broadcast could see how Gardiner crafted the sound, shaping phrases, drawing out the delicacy of the strings, taking the dynamics from a whisper to raging turmoil in the blink of an eye. Judging from his expressions and interaction with the players, he was happy with what he was hearing and reveling in the discoveries of an overlooked masterwork.

The Czech Philharmonic is fortunate to have a horn player who is also a modern music specialist. After playing in the opening symphony, Ondřej Vrabec took the podium to lead an eight-piece ensemble – seven winds and a piano – in Janáčekʼs Capriccio for Piano Left-Hand and Winds. Virtuoso Moravian pianist Igor Ardašev was a standout at the keyboard, skillfully blending tasty accents with manic runs. Vrabec showed an impressive command of the material, layering the winds with precision. The sonorities were grating, though, at least from the upper balcony.

Ondřej Vrabec, Igor Ardašev and the Czech Philharmonic
© Petr Kadlec

Streaming, the sound was markedly better. Instead of clashing, the winds complemented each other, and the piano was clear rather than buried. In general, the piece fit together rather than threatening to fly apart. The colors that Vrabec created, which faded quickly in the empty hall, were particularly vivid online.

Gardiner returned to the stage for the finale, Martinůʼs Sinfonietta La Jolla, for Piano and Chamber Orchestra. The conductor did not sound like an early music specialist in his eloquent evocation its many influences and elements – 20th-century Russian composers, American jazz and blues, and the homesickness that the composer was feeling in 1950 after many years abroad. One of the hallmarks of Gardinerʼs style is a measured tempo that illuminates the music, but for this piece he picked up the pace, giving the music a vibrant pulse. Soloist Ivo Kahánek, yet another sterling talent in the seemingly endless flow from Moravia, got lost in the live sound. Thankfully he was in the foreground online, adding thoughtful, elegant touches.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducts the Czech Philharmonic
© Petr Kadlec

In all, a smart program showcasing three different periods of Czech music, brought to life by the countryʼs flagship orchestra and a conductor who showed himself to be equally gifted and at home in all of them. For the reviewers, the opportunity to experience the concert in both the real and virtual worlds was a rare treat. Not what one would wish for in better times, certainly. But in an extended period of cultural deprivation, it was a brilliant reminder of what weʼve lost and are hoping to regain.