If a festival should go out with a bang, then the concluding concert of Dvořák’s Prague was one for the ages. Daniel Harding conducted the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra in a power-packed performance of a short poem and a long symphony by the festival’s namesake, both so amped-up that musically, it was difficult to tell them apart. Soloist Veronika Eberle joined them for a rendition of Bartók’s Violin Concerto no. 1 that was comparatively subdued but no less intense. It was like the festival had suddenly plugged in and gone electric.

The Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra in the Rudolfinum
© Dvořák's Prague | Petra Hajská

The Noon Witch is a narrative piece that recounts a frightening fairy tale of a child lost to the title character. In duration and classification it’s a poem, but Dvořák wrote it for a full symphony orchestra, and it’s not hard to discern a four-movement symphonic structure. After a gentle opening by bright woodwinds, Harding launched into a propulsive treatment of large, almost overwhelming dimensions. The drama was such that at one point it bordered on the cataclysmic. But he also showed superb control, drawing out vivid colors and crafting quick turns in tone and tempo. The clarity in the tumult was a hallmark of the entire evening, a fine transparency never muddied by the aggressive dynamics.

Veronika Eberle, Daniel Harding and the Swedish RSO
© Dvořák's Prague | Petra Hajská

The soloist starts Bartók’s two-movement concerto, which gave Harding an opportunity to show another of his strengths – building layers of sound. The orchestra eased in almost imperceptibly, with the strings rising to a shimmering glow that added luster to the dark timbre of Eberle’s Stradivarius. That complementary approach characterized the entire piece, which was not composed as a dialogue but at times sounded like one, both in the playing and mood. Waves of hope and despair from the orchestra matched the plaintive, somber tone struck by Eberle, evoking an introspective atmosphere even in the more animated sections. With deep emotional undercurrents running on both sides of the podium, it was a rare instance of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts, a true co-creation.

The concerto does not offer the soloist an opportunity to show much technical prowess, so it was a treat to have Eberle come out for an encore that is a technical tour de force, Nicola Matteis Jr’s Alia Fantasia in A minor. A Baroque gem, it glittered in her hands.

Daniel Harding
© Dvořák's Prague | Petra Hajská

Dvořák’s Symphony no. 7 in D minor was a better fit with Harding’s grand soundscapes, which if anything opened up even more in this piece, taking on a three-dimensional quality. He kept the piece grounded with a measured tempo that let the music breathe and careful attention to the melodies, giving them a distinctive shape and character. Delicate flutes and brash brass added colors and details, which in the final movement were overrun by sharp, almost marching percussion. The finale sounded more like Shostakovich than a fellow Romantic like Brahms, to whom Dvořák is often compared. Which, in the end, is the raison d’être of the festival – to showcase the full breadth and depth of his work.

The Swedish players employed a lot of body language, which added a kinetic edge to the symphony. Swaying to the music is not uncommon, but at times it almost seemed like Harding was pulling the players on strings with his baton. Dvořák will do that to you.