A pair of flutes flicker and ripple, soon joined by burbling clarinets, with pizzicato glints of sunlight on water. A string theme swells and falls, meandering on its way. Smetana’s Vltava must be the most topographical piece of classical music, depicting a journey along the river from its source into Prague. But continue past the Czech capital and the Vltava merges with the Elbe at Mělník. Following that river brings you to Hamburg and its striking concert hall, glass sails perched on an old warehouse, the Elbphilharmonie.

The Elbphilharmonie © Mark Pullinger
The Elbphilharmonie
© Mark Pullinger

How appropriate, then, that the Bamberg Symphony, which can trace its own orchestral roots back to Prague, voyaged to the “Elphi” with Czech conductor Jakub Hrůša in Smetana’s Ma vlást, the patriotic cycle of symphonic poems in which Vltava forms the second panel. They have just opened the Prague Spring Festival with the same work – an honour bestowed on few orchestras.

Opinions on the Elbphilharmonie’s acoustic are split, seemingly dependent on seating and repertoire. From dead centre of the sixth row, it has a bright, dry, glittery sound, which suits Smetana’s music splendidly. The string sound blooms and every woodwind detail, including key clatter, registers. It is a loud, unforgiving hall though; any slip in unison between violins – especially when antiphonally split across the platform – is noticed, as are any “noises off”, such as a squeaky chair, a dropped chinrest or a stray wisp of a late violin.

Bamberger Symphoniker © Andreas Herzau
Bamberger Symphoniker
© Andreas Herzau

Hrůša led an outstanding account of Smetana’s cycle. A great technician, he controlled everything with precision, but that didn’t prevent him from opening up the last two poems – Tábor and Blaník – into highly theatrical readings, investing the music’s pomp with real drama. The harps in the bardic prologue to Vyšehrad, which opens the cycle, sparkled with clarity while Hrůša gave the peasant wedding episode in Vltava a buoyant spring, practically dancing on the podium. Muted violins worked their magic in Vltava’s moonlit section, while the piccolo sliced through the orchestral wash in the swirling St John’s Rapids with ease. The siren clarinet call in Šárka was voluptuously phrased, the poem’s hell-for-leather finale played with wild abandon.

Albrecht Mayer © Harald Hoffmann
Albrecht Mayer
© Harald Hoffmann

The first half opened with Richard Strauss’ Oboe Concerto, prefaced – as soloist Albrecht Mayer explained – with Gordon Jacob’s arrangement of Elgar’s Soliloquy to set the mood. These two works seep with nostalgia, two elderly composers coming to terms with loss and age; Strauss even called his concerto a “wrist exercise”, to keep him active. Mayer captured both works’ underlying melancholy in soulful renditions, although that didn’t stop the more garrulous sections of the Strauss from chattering amiably, the cadenzas having the flavour of a Mozart recitative. His bell-like tone – not too much cream – rang out clearly. Before Mayer took up his post as principal with the Berlin Philharmonic, he was first oboe with the Bamberg, so this was very much a meeting of old friends, full of affection and mutual admiration. This was most obvious in the encore, a Bach cantata sinfonia, where Mayer was supported by just the five string principals, often turning to play to his colleagues while Hrůša, sitting alongside the double basses, nodded his approval.

*****