No less a personage than Antonín Dvořák III, the grandson of the legendary composer, was in the audience for the opening concert of the Czech Philharmonicʼs 2016/17 season, which did not include any pieces by his grandfather. Instead, the program featured another favorite son of Bohemia, Gustav Mahler, and a taste of the orchestraʼs new venture into Tchaikovsky, with a fresh take on an old warhorse provided by soloist Joshua Bell.

Joshua Bell © Erik Kabik
Joshua Bell
© Erik Kabik

Bell is in many ways a consummate American artist, well-versed in the classics but just as likely to be found doing crossover projects in genres ranging from Christmas music to bluegrass. His distinctive voice has a New World flavor, with phrases stretched and embellished like jazz licks, and tension built with pregnant pauses then released in rapid-fire solos. But he is also a student of European tradition. For the past five years, he has been Music Director of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields. And he plays the Huberman Stradivarius, whose rich, golden tones sound straight out of early 18th-century Cremona. 

So there was a natural fit when Bell was paired with the Czech Philharmonic at the Abu Dhabi Festival three years ago. Playing Bruch together worked so well that afterward Bell and Conductor Jiřì Bĕlohlávek agreed they should collaborate again. One of the pieces Bell offered was Tchaikovskyʼs Violin Concerto in D major, which dovetails nicely with the orchestraʼs new project to record all of the composerʼs symphonies under the baton of renowned Tchaikovsky specialist Semyon Bychkov, who has been working intensively with the Czech Philharmonic for the past year.

Bĕlohlávek was on the podium for the season opener, but Bychkovʼs tutelage was clear in the sound – a bit sharper and more urgent than usual, with a deeper, more resonant bottom. The orchestraʼs core is its Dvořák-inspired 19th-century Romanticism, so itʼs not much of a stretch to get to Tchaikovsky. But the subtle darker elements are new, and the thunder seems more portentous, as if mirroring the current unease about Russia in many Central and Eastern European countries.

As for Bell, not many soloists can stride onstage in an untucked, open-necked shirt and then completely dominate a performance. His mastery of both his instrument and the piece was total, with every note in the notoriously complex solo passages articulated – and a few more occasionally thrown in. The phrasing, timing and dynamics were captivating and uniquely Bellʼs, putting a fresh burnish on a predictable staple. Just as impressive was the range of sounds he got from his violin. One expects the trademark sweetness, clarity and elegance, but not the squeaks and squawks that Bell pulled out, which had an unusually modern bite.

For an encore, Bell proved to be a class act, eschewing solo pyrotechnics for another piece with the orchestra, Rachmaninovʼs durable Vocalise. That gave him a chance to interact again with the woodwinds, which were vibrant and colorful the entire evening, providing a flowing, lyrical counterpoint to Bellʼs slashing violin lines.

The second half was devoted to Mahlerʼs Das Lied von der Erde (Song of the Earth) with vocalists Bernarda Fink and Pavel Černoch. The latter is a Czech tenor on the rise, seen more often in opera houses and as a concert soloist abroad than in his homeland. A solid singer with an agreeably warm tone, he seemed to be reaching for many of the high notes, sometimes without hitting them. Fink is a versatile mezzo whose understated, dramatic approach was a good fit with her portions of the piece, especially the lengthy finale Der Abschied (The Farewell).

Both singers suffered from being drowned out at times by the orchestra. Like much of Mahler, Das Lied demands great swells of emotion, which are difficult to balance with vocals delivered at less than a shout. But the orchestra positively glowed in the brighter passages, which rang with joy and exulted in natureʼs glory. The flurry of flutes that opens Von der Schönheit (Of Beauty) burst from the stage like a flock of birds, closely followed by sparkling, soaring strings. In all, it was a vivid, exuberant invocation of the life cycle, from the raucous opening to the whispered, “endless” conclusion. 

And a rousing start on the Czech Philharmonic season.