Prague Spring ended not with a bang but a soft thud, an uncharacteristically lackluster performance from the esteemed Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse. With Music Director Tugan Sokhiev on the podium and soloist Renaud Capuçon lined up to play Dvořákʼs Violin Concerto in A minor, all the elements seemed to be in place for a memorable finale. Instead, cognoscenti were left looking ahead to next year.

The Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse, Tugan Sokhiev and Renaud Capuçon
© Prague Spring | Ivan Malý

A bit of creative shuffling put the concerto first on the program, and the strengths of the musicians were immediately apparent. The Toulouse orchestra has a regal sound, elegant, even luxurious at times, and an exceptionally rich color palette that brightens everything it plays. Capuçon is a skilled technician and at least in theory a good match with Dvořák, whose work demands a deep wellspring of emotion coupled with technical finesse. After a slow start, their rendition of the concerto had its moments, in particular the glowing, golden tones of Capuçonʼs violin paired with the French horns. But the violinist gave away a lot of notes in the demanding runs, and he and Sokhiev were not always entirely in sync.

The orchestraʼs shortcomings were most apparent in the third movement, with its lively, syncopated dance rhythms. The tempo was sluggish at times and the music had no bite, like something heard from a distance or on a recording. Of course every ensemble is entitled to its own interpretation, but this one lacked spirit and the ineffable difference between simply playing a piece or bringing it to life.

The remainder of the programme played out in much the same way, with smart, colorful performances lacking the core and momentum that pulls in listeners and takes them on a compelling journey. Debussyʼs La Mer was wonderfully detailed and more than effective in invoking the swelling of ocean waves, yet obvious and predictable in its dynamics. Technically there were no holes or flaws, but one would expect more nuance and insight from an orchestra for whom this composer should be one of the jewels in its crown.

Stravinskyʼs Firebird suite (the 1919 version) took the energy and caliber of playing up a notch, with sharp blasts of percussion, occasional doses of humor and greatly improved dynamics – starting with the long, opening rumble in the low strings and bass drum, which set a dramatic, anticipatory atmosphere for the subsequent explosions of fireworks. The tempo was mostly slow to moderate, and while one might have wished for a bit more pep, there was a sense of savouring the music that fit the orchestraʼs style and aristocratic bearing very well. If there wasnʼt much fire, there was a feeling of excitement and drama that had been missing for most of the evening.

The orchestra offered two encores, concluding with the overture to Carmen. Audience reactions are not always an accurate gauge of a performance, especially at Prague Spring, where almost every concert ends in a standing ovation, its quality notwithstanding. That was true this night as well, with some foot-stomping in the mix from what was obviously a largely tourist crowd. However, one couldnʼt help but notice the local listeners who mostly remained in their seats, looking bemused and a bit disappointed. Granted, the Toulouse ensemble makes its living partly as an opera orchestra, and thereʼs nothing like Carmen to send an audience home humming and happy. But as the capstone on a venerable festival that for decades traditionally ended on the soaring, triumphant notes of Beethovenʼs Ninth? At the very least, it lacked imagination.

A better ending awaited outside, where a horn ensemble played a closing fanfare from the ornate Art Nouveau terrace overlooking the entrance to Pragueʼs magnificent Municipal House. The music stopped everyone on the street in their tracks, and for a magic moment the festivalʼs storied 74-year history, in all its glory, travails and promise, seemed to hang in the sultry evening air. On to 75!