When Sakari Oramo was rehearsing Beethovenʾs Fifth with the BBC Symphony for the orchestraʾs appearance in Prague Spring this year, the conductor told his players, “Forget everything you know about this piece, and just go for the energy and raw emotion.” Which is exactly how it sounded in performance – thunderous and unbridled, running at a gallop from one majestic climax to the next with little attention to detail.

Sang Yoon Kim and Sakari Oramo © Prague Spring | Ivan Malý
Sang Yoon Kim and Sakari Oramo
© Prague Spring | Ivan Malý

It was a fitting conclusion to an evening that was mostly about surface gloss, with surprisingly little depth in a program that included Mozart and Janáček. To truly understand and appreciate it, however, one had to hear the orchestraʾs concert the following night, which took it to more familiar territory. It also helped to hear Oramo explain at a press conference between the performances, “The pieces that most orchestras play the most, we play the least. Beethoven Five is like new music for us.” 

Playing in the challenging acoustics of Smetana Hall, the orchestra opened the first night with Janáčekʾs symphonic poem The Ballad of Blaník, which should have benefited from Jiří Bělohlávekʾs six-year tenure as chief conductor. But it offered no special insight or distinctive sound. To be fair, the orchestra had never played the piece before, even under Bělohlávek, and it is an uncharacteristically straightforward and Romantic work, more akin to something Smetana or Dvořák would have written. Still, the performance was like hearing any Western orchestra playing a homogenized version of Czech music.

Joining the orchestra for Mozartʾs Concerto for Clarinet in A major was Sang Yoon Kim, the winner of last yearʾs Prague Spring competition. He won playing that concerto, and in this performance it was clear why. A facile player with strong technical command and a pleasant, rounded tone, Kim infused the piece with engaging colors and sunny optimism. One of the many young stars emerging from Korea these days – the festival opened with another, pianist Seong-Jin Cho – Kim already has a thriving career as a concert soloist, though if this performance was an accurate indication, he will benefit from more experience and seasoning. The orchestra gave him a lot of room and a lot of energy with a brisk tempo and buoyant sound, but was otherwise content to take a supporting role.

Double basses of the BBCSO © Prague Spring | Ivan Malý
Double basses of the BBCSO
© Prague Spring | Ivan Malý

Its overwrought nature notwithstanding, the Beethoven symphony provided the perfect bridge to the following night, which featured two noisy 20th-century pieces and British composer Colin Matthewsʾ Traces Remain, a commission that the BBC Symphony premiered in January 2014. Settled more comfortably in its métier, the orchestra played with both passion and precision, offering revealing accounts of complex works that would tie lesser ensembles in knots.

Matthewsʾ piece was the compositional highlight of the programs, a resurrection of lost or forgotten music stitched together with sonic outbursts and atmospheric textures. Intrigued by a lute song written by Robert Johnson, an obscure 17th-century composer who wrote music for Shakespeareʾs plays, Matthews dug up other fragments – sketches by Sibelius and Schoenberg, an outline by Mahler – and created a fresh frame for them. With sharp, nimble playing by the orchestra, Traces evoked dreams and memories, sometimes soothing and sometimes startling, spanning nearly four centuries.

Alina Ibragimova © Prague Spring | Ivan Malý
Alina Ibragimova
© Prague Spring | Ivan Malý

Soloist Alina Ibragimova provided the fireworks, almost literally, for Bartókʾs Concerto for Violin no. 2. Taking a ferocious approach to the blazing runs and daunting technical demands of the piece, she matched the orchestra roaring and clattering behind her. With Oramo keeping the many layers of sound clear and tightly controlled from the podium, the concerto was like an exhilarating roller-coaster ride – never leaving the track, but with headlong intensity at every turn.

Prokofievʾs concluding Symphony no. 5 in B flat major took the volume a notch higher, although Oramo interpreted the martial theme less as an external battle than the internal struggle of the composer after returning to a Soviet Union of broken promises. The relentless percussion was nicely balanced by smart, sensitive work in the woodwinds and brass. Though the strings sounded a bit strained at times, the vivid colors, pounding rhythms and surging momentum were thrilling, earning enthusiastic applause. Even more impressive was the clarity of the sound, especially in such a cacophonous work. Only an orchestra and conductor steeped in the demands and complexities of modern music could have turned in such a remarkable performance.

This appearance was the BBC Symphonyʾs seventh in Prague Spring, marking a relationship that began in 1979. Asked at the press conference what keeps the orchestra coming back, General Manager Paul Hughes smiled and said, “Whatʾs not to like?” For two nights of capacity audiences at Smetana Hall, the feeling was mutual.

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