The Czech Philharmonic under their principal guest conductor Jakub Hrůša are touring in Germany with a well-chosen Czech programme. Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in B minor may be familiar fare, but Suk’s Scherzo fantastique and Janáček’s Taras Bulba feature far less often in concert halls. A small Bohemian music feast of the purest homemade vintage and all the more sad to see that for their concert in Cologne the Philharmonie remained half empty. Yet, those braving the evil bugs were treated to a tremendous evening. 

Jakub Hrůša
© Pavel Hejnz

Dvořák’s Cello Concerto, penned by the homesick composer during his stint in the New World, seeps with nostalgia. The illness and eventual death of his sister-in-law prompted even more homeland Schmerz. In a superb performance, Hrůša naturally balanced the characteristic elegiac intimacy and virile brilliance of the score. In Argentinian cellist Sol Gabetta, he had the most sympathetic of soloists. Undemonstrative in manner and unforced in delivery, her graceful and expressive tone blended beautifully within the orchestra, switching seamlessly between the moments in the spotlight and the no less important accompanying parts or dialogues with other soloists. Rhythmically alert in the virtuosic passages, Gabetta also lovingly revealed Dvořák’s cantilena cello writing in the contemplative moments, most hauntingly so in the coda of the last movement.

Hrůša is a lively figure on the podium, fully committed and obviously loving the music. He drew energetic and colourful but always polished playing from the Czech Philharmonic. Woodwinds and brass (what fabulous horns!) competed in excellence, while the richly textured strings wove warm blankets. Yet for all its colourful sheen, this was essentially a dark and suspenseful reading – threatening lower strings and brass were never far away – and even the Adagio, ma non troppo was underpinned by a palpable tension.

After the break, Hrůša made the most convincing case for Josef Suk’s little heard Scherzo fantastique (1903). Some 15 minutes long, it’s a brilliantly scored piece for large orchestra, with themes appearing in constantly shifting colours, rhythms and dynamics. Instantly accessible, it boasts a catchy waltz-like theme, but the most astonishing moment comes in the middle, introduced by a very Dvořák-like passage with long trills in the woodwinds and followed by a flute and clarinet in dialogue on a harp figure. Capitalising on his orchestra’s idiomatic colour palette and with disarming naturalness, Hrůša moulded the long melodic lines (oh, what glorious cellos!) towards a riveting climax.

The concert ended with an knockout reading of Janáček’s Taras Bulba. Conducting from memory, Hrůša painted the drama in all its wild complexion and volatile moods. Based on Gogol’s novel, Janáček lets all three movements culminate with the death of a character, including the rebellious Cossack’s own execution. Superbly paced, with deftly handled dynamics and theatrical pauses, the narrative was gripping from start to end. The orchestral balance couldn’t be faulted, while Janáček’s massive tutti remained miraculously transparent and articulate. Solos were admirable (foremost from orchestra leader Jan Mráček), shrieking winds alternated with hair-raising brass chorales and colossal timpani. Unfortunately, the organ of the Philharmonie had broken down and apparently the orchestra only knew about it at the very last minute. They replaced it with a positive, which obviously cannot compete in expressivity with an organ. Still, the overall impact of the work was with such brilliant playing undiminished.

After all this intense drama some welcome relief was provided with a vivid performance of Dymák, the Blacksmith’s Dance from Janáček’s Lachian Dances. It’s heartening to see the Czech repertoire is still in the best of hands with the Czech Philharmonic. Sublime!