It’s fashionable to speak of the communication of personal ‘energy’ these days, and in that space between the conductor and his orchestra, either a current of energy passes back and forth, or it doesn’t. One can feel it instinctively; one can also sense its absence. It was generally absent tonight as guest conductor Jiří Bělohlávek led the NSO in a program of Mozart, Martinů and Beethoven. An old-school conductor with no particular idiosyncrasy of style to compel attention, there seemed to be something missing in his relationship to the players in tonight’s performance. As a result, Mozart’s Symphony no. 38 in D major “Prague” lacked in manner and polish. Mozart, in some respects, is the Jane Austen of the musical world. He may poke and prod the conventions; there is plenty of tongue-in-cheek playfulness, but he is never not civilized. He knows his manners. This evening’s Prague did not; not that was especially rough or crude, but it wouldn’t have passed muster in a refined salon. The tempo of the Largo was a bit on the ponderous side of largo; the tonal palette was, overall, kept rather monochrome. Within the elegant Mozartian framework, the contained drama of those repeated notes was not captured with sufficient vivacity. Furthermore, Mozart is nothing if not about the attention given to the little notes; every note needs to be as fine as a hand-painted miniature. The notes in the dense contrapuntal sections were not quite finely-articulated enough. The lovely melody that ushers in the  second-movement Andante needs to sing. It sounded a little too thin and watery. There were some moments of vitality here and there, where Mozart’s spirit surfaced, but not in masterly fashion, and not uniformly.

Igor Levit © Felix Broede
Igor Levit
© Felix Broede

As a Czech himself, Belohlavek has done much over the years to foster Czech music and the appearance of Bohuslav Martinů’s Symphony no. 6 “Fantaisies symphoniques” on the program was entirely fitting. Although it was mostly written – and indeed premiered – in America in the 1950s, this was its debut performance by the NSO. The work is properly fantastical, juxtaposing an extremely dissonant palette with some elements of conventional major-minor tonality. Martinů slips between the badly and the well-behaved but to be frank, it’s mostly badly behaved. It’s a one-off break-out work and on the whole, it was rather boxed-in tonight and its full potentialities left a little under-explored. That said, I liked the cold, menacing snare drum, and the striking violin solo backed by percussion in the first movement. The second movement Poco allegro (although commentators call it a scherzo of sorts) got off to a great start, building great cumulus clouds of dissonance. The third movement, a homage to Dvor̆ák’s Requiem motif theme, did manage to build tension towards the work’s climax, but the slow tonal chorale fell rather flat.

With Igor Levit performing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 5 in E flat major, we were in assured hands right from the very beginning. His is a smooth, refined form of pianism. His characteristic manner was to bend over the keyboard, as if sheltering the keys, affording each a sacred touch. One wasn’t surprised to see him join his hands at one moment; he appears reverently prayerful over the piano. This made his rendition of Beethoven rather more introvert than many that I’ve heard. But what he lacked in pow-wow exuberance (and who can hope to capture all facets of Beethoven?), he made up for in sensitivity, care of execution, and meticulous grace. He is a player who actively listens to himself and to the orchestra: although not one who relates to them in always obvious fashion, his habit of listening and responding is palpable: the lovely turn-taking in the second movement was, for example, acutely observed, and the transition to the third movement, very fine. By the Rondo: Allegro, he allowed himself to ‘let go’ just a little, although never swagger. This was well-groomed Beethoven with not a note out of place. He responded to the audience’s delight by playing Shostakovich Dance of the Dolls as his encore: a pointillist miniature of great precision which suited his understated style perfectly.