Alisa Weilerstein © Chris Christodoulou
Alisa Weilerstein
© Chris Christodoulou
The highlight of the Czech Philharmonic’s Prom was by some distance Dvořák’s Cello Concerto, given a memorably touching rendition with the brilliant Alisa Weilerstein as soloist. The ensuing Beethoven took some time to find the necessary ignition spark before really taking off, although there was nonetheless a great deal to commend in the orchestral playing.

The high intensity of the concert’s first half was set immediately by the astringency of the front desk of first violins in the opening bars of Janáček’s overture From the House of the Dead. The overture is distinctive for its percussion writing, realised here with aplomb. The timpani solos were given with sticks hard enough to project a clear, bright tone throughout the hall, and the metal chains, representing the Siberian prison camp in Dostoyevsky’s work of the same name, were cast over cymbals to excellent effect.

American cellist Alisa Weilerstein has recorded the Dvořák Cello Concerto with the Czech Phil and Bĕlohlávek, and the easy intimacy of their relationship was obvious throughout tonight’s performance. It was a joy to witness this relationship, as it was to hear the orchestra fully expressing their much celebrated distinctive sound. Here the most distinguishing features to my ears came from the woodwinds, beginning with the clarinets’ reedy, sinewy tone in the chalumeau register. Beautifully played solos for horn and oboe followed later, the principal horn especially memorable in his handling of the second theme. Weilerstein joined with no display of ego or theatrics, but gently urged the music onwards in her solos and showed clear willingness to accompany with great sensitivity when required. The tutti passages glowed with the sort of colour only this orchestra can produce in this work.

The slow movement was convincingly bucolic in outlook, again chiefly thanks to the finer details of the woodwind playing. Reflecting the familiarity of the work, the busy cello accompaniment to the overarching melodic lines was executed with immaculate ensemble. The horn section shone again in their more prominent passages, highlighting fine intonation and pleasing tone in the low register. Weilerstein’s contributions made for some ravishingly beautiful moments.

Jiří Bělohlávek conducts the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra © Chris Christodoulou
Jiří Bělohlávek conducts the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra
© Chris Christodoulou
The crisp, brisk pace of the finale brought out strong Slavic character in the music, which was fully enjoyed and emphasised by Bĕlohlávek. The solo lines continued to display delightful characterisation, all the while backed by absolute technical mastery.  There was a sense of rapturous excitement in the coming together of Weilerstein with the concertmaster’s solo, while woodwinds provided attractive decoration. It closed a memorable performance, followed up after much applause by the Sarabande of JS Bach’s Cello Suite No. 3 in C major.

I had very high hopes for this partnership’s account of Beethoven’s much-loved seventh symphony, chiefly in the hope that some of the uninhibited dance music capabilities which they later displayed in their three encores would be expressed in this most energetic and danceable of all symphonies. Sadly it wasn’t until the second half of the symphony, and particularly the finale, that this mode was properly encouraged.

The first movement was played with great elegance, precision and skill, but I heard little of the swaggering joie de vivre which it calls for. This was Beethoven not far off the traditional, big-boned performances of old, employing a full string section, but perhaps in part due to this it lost some of its spontaneity and excitement. Rather than fully expressing their characteristic spark, this felt a little lacklustre. The undoubled horns, after their fine contributions in the first half, were entirely swallowed up in some of their greater opportunities for rambunctiousness, and so in moments such as the tutti at the Vivace, or their joyful pealing at the end of the movement, they missed their chance to lead the orchestra, which was a great shame. Perhaps their seating position, nestled into a hollow between the strings, wind and rear-stage double basses, was unfavourable in projecting their sound.

Jiří Bělohlávek conducts the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra © Chris Christodoulou
Jiří Bělohlávek conducts the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra
© Chris Christodoulou
Bĕlohlávek carried the Allegretto along at a reasonably brisk tempo yet still managed to give it a pleasingly full emotional weight. He subsequently seemed to come alive for the Scherzo, encouraging bold contributions from bright trumpets and thunderous timpani and keeping the rapid string figures crisp and light-footed. The Trio saw some nice touches of phrasing from the woodwinds, of whom the bassoons seemed particularly to enjoy themselves, swaying back and forth vigorously with the music.

In the Finale, at last, Bĕlohlávek opened the throttle and threw caution to the wind. Here suddenly was the spark and breathless charge of the dance which I had hoped for, with all the Czech character on offer. He struck a good balance between encouraging precision and avoiding over-conducting, and so the coda whirled away to a tumultuous close. The horns, alas, again struggled to make themselves heard. Maybe, with a more favourable stage layout and a little more energy in the first movements, this could have been a very fine performance. Instead, however technically strong it was, it did not quite excite as it could have done.

Still, it went down well enough to deserve three encores – the third of Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances, the Skočná from Smetana’s Bartered Bride, and Oskar Nedbal’s Valse Triste. This is undoubtedly one of the world’s great orchestras, and the encores served as reminder of what a joy it is to hear them.