At first glance, early Beethoven and early French opera would seem an unlikely pairing. Credit the latter to Tomáš Netopil, who as Principal Guest Conductor of the Czech Philharmonic regularly leads smart symphonic concerts, but rarely gets a chance to show his facility with the operatic repertoire. As for Beethoven, even if it were not an anniversary year, few can equal the command and expertise that Rudolf Buchbinder brings to the composerʼs piano concertos. Put those together, and eras and genres happily melt away.

Tomáš Netopil and Rudolf Buchbinder
© Petra Hajská

Netopil, now in his seventh season as Music Director of the Aalto Theatre and Philharmonie Essen, departed from the heavy Romantic programming he does there for a romp through Rameauʼs Hippolyte et Aricie. The suite from the opera is intricate but light, emphasizing the melodies and dances. Leading a 14-piece chamber group from the orchestra accompanied by harpsichordist Barbara Maria Willi, Netopil showed considerable finesse in getting a period sound from contemporary players and instruments. The strings were airy and buoyant, the woodwinds delicate and colorful.

Purists might have quibbled with the interpretation, which in some ways catered to modern tastes – glossy, emphatic, fast-paced to the point of sounding rushed at times. A more refined approach would have added clarity. Instead Netopil let the dances set the tempo, and even joined in on two of them, banging on a frame drum at the podium. If the suite lacked formality, it had an engaging exuberance, as if to say donʼt worry about the rules, get in the spirit of the music and let it carry you away. The players handled it with aplomb.

Rudolf Buchbinder
© Petra Hajská

Buchbinderʼs name is practically synonymous with the Beethoven piano concertos, which he has rerecorded for the anniversary year (along with the Diabelli Variations). He is also taking them on the road, to date playing the full set in Lucerne and Vienna. For Buchbinder the concertos offer a journey in rediscovery, though at least in this appearance, the First was not markedly different from what audiences have come to expect – serious scholarship, an insightful reading and technical fluency that approaches the divine. He seemed a bit stiff to start, but any doubts were quickly dispelled by the first-movement cadenza, which glittered like diamonds. In the second movement he showed amazingly soft hands, teasing out the notes, then bearing down to add plenty of bite to the finale.

Buchbinder often conducts from the keyboard when heʼs playing Beethoven. Leaving that chore to Netopil allowed him to focus more closely on the dialogue with the orchestra, which was brilliant, particularly with the woodwinds. Still, nothing can match his virtuoso solo work, which he demonstrated with a bracing, full-blooded encore of Schubertʼs Impromptu D.899 no.2.

Tomáš Netopil conducts the Czech Philharmonic
© Petra Hajská

Netopilʼs accompaniment was upbeat with a lot of punch – again, sacrificing some of the fine edges for speed. The orchestra also sounded a bit thick, mostly in the opening movement. By the third the sound had opened up a bit, a development that carried over nicely to Beethovenʼs Fourth Symphony. Netopil started it with more deliberate pacing that he maintained through the fire of the first movement, sharpening the articulation in the sound. With room to breathe, the second movement had sweep and grandeur, setting the stage for the final movements, which Netopil imbued with a youthful, exultant energy.

And hearing the Czech Philharmonic play Beethoven was a flat-out treat. He may not sound as regal or imposing as he does in some hands, but the natural emotion in the orchestraʼs style lends the music a rare richness. For all the innovation and intellectual gifts Beethoven left to the world, this is unmistakably music straight from the heart.