I have always liked the idea of symphony orchestras going on tour. The logistics of touring are, of course, a complete nightmare, but for the music-loving public, seeing different ensembles and performers is a great way to experience variety. Celebrating its 25th anniversary, the versatile Czech National Symphony Orchestra has just spent the first half of April flitting around different venues providing live music to film screenings of Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark, while in the second half it returns to classical and romantic repertoire, with programmes based around Dvořák and Beethoven. Variety indeed, and fairly typical of the CNSO. And as if this wasn’t enough, this was all taking place while on tour in the UK. Regrettably, performances can suffer with such heavy schedules, as was the case at Cadogan Hall.

Barry Douglas
© Katya Kraynova

Guest conductor Jan Chalupecký, standing in for Petr Altrichter who had pulled out for health reasons, was a genial host, with a modest demeanour and exuding quiet confidence. He gave a comfortable, if not over-exhilarating, performance of Schubert’s Symphony no. 5 in B flat major, keeping an element of charm but with too patchy a sound from the orchestra. There was some nice ensemble work from the winds and horns in the slow movement, which had a tempting intimacy and a well-judged sequence of modulations towards the end, but there was an overriding sense of looseness throughout and a tendency to sound slightly heavy in places, although there was a renewed vibrancy in the Allegro vivace.

Things picked up when Barry Douglas joined the ensemble to give a majestic performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 5 in E flat major "Emperor". Suddenly we heard bright trumpets, heroic horns and a robustness in the strings momentarily. From the cadenza-like opening to the spreading of his pianistic wings in the florid finale, it was Douglas who showed composure and patient phrasing, hammering down in the more emphatic passages and displaying deceptive delicacy and tenderness, paying as much attention to the inner detail as to the melodies. The slow movement was better from the CNSO, with Chalupecký creating balance across the orchestra, and Douglas dreamlike, expressing a subtle legato. Regrettably, there was a disconnect between soloist and orchestra and elements of mistiming, although it was Douglas who seemed to be working hardest to keep them all together. Other niggles included the lack of contrast in dynamics and a slight mechanical feel in places.

For some reason, a switch seemed to have been clicked in the interval, as Chalupecký and the CNSO came out with renewed vigour to perform Dvořák’s Symphony no. 9 in E minor "From the New World” like it was a grand homecoming. This performance had everyone playing more like a family, allowing all the voices to shine through: the woodwinds had character, the brass were resounding and the strings dug in relentlessly. The Largo was full of nostalgia, with an elegant cor anglais solo, and the Scherzo was furiously fiery and lusciously lilting. The tempestuous Allegro con fuoco was filled with purpose, but not quite matching Donald Tovey’s description of the chords at the climax that “stride over the world like Wagner’s Wotan rides the storm”. Fortunately, the playing in this piece was as wholesome as a Czech kolache, and the joy that the players themselves got from this music was not only palpable, but visible. However, there are clearly better performances in them, and maybe the punishing schedule has taken its toll.