It certainly cannot be easy for a touring orchestra to adjust to a different venue each night, to have little rehearsal time with soloists, yet alone to play a (mammoth) programme that was originally rehearsed with a different conductor. But touring also provides an orchestra with the chance to present themselves outside their home country and to show their potential, a chance that the Czech National Symphony Orchestra sadly did not take. Ben Palmer stepped in for Petr Altrichter, who had to withdraw due to ill health, to conduct a disappointing concert at Cadogan Hall, outshone by a magnificent performance by Russian pianist Pavel Kolesnikov.

Pavel Kolesnikov
© Eva Vermandel

It is not known why Schubert never finished his Eighth Symphony. In 1865, more than 40 years after Schubert had started writing it, the score was rediscovered and premiered, but whether Schubert intended it to be a symphony consisting of only two movements or whether he stopped work on it because it showed a close resemblance to Beethoven’s Second remains unclear. Palmer, standing firmly with his movement coming entirely from his upper body, might have tried to elicit the dusky gloom of the Allegro moderato from the orchestra, but the musicians were glued to their scores and only rarely looked up to the conductor who never quite succeeded in breathing life into the first movement. Diverging strings and hollow winds – although a superb first horn should not go without mention – shaped a disappointing Andante con moto that saw little tempo or dynamic nuances.

Pavel Kolesnikov was at the heart and soul of this concert. Prize Laureate of the Honens Prize for Piano in 2012, he quietly introduced the main theme of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 4 in G major, mastering the simplicity of the opening statement. Franz Liszt once compared the second movement with its erupting orchestral growls and calming piano response to “Orpheus taming the Furies”, but the Allegro moderato might have been better compared to “The Furies avoiding Orpheus”. Kolesnikov’s playing showed meticulous technique as well as meditative and thoughtful moments, but unfortunately his finesse did not rub off on the orchestra. There can sometimes be an intimate connection or dialogue between soloist and orchestra or soloist and conductor; here it seemed like two different performances with a deep gulf between them.

Kolesnikov, playing perfectly placed trills and making his solos tell a story, was never challenged, yet alone interrupted by those thunderous string storms in the Andante. Not only was there a division between pianist and orchestra, but within the orchestra and even within individual groups, the violins being completely apart at times. In the cadenza, Kolesnikov’s right hand light-footedly skipped the keys while his left followed a clear line. Yet, not even here did the musicians glance at their soloist. With his encore – a versatilely crafted Chopin Mazurka – Kolesnikov proved his world class status once more.

The CNSO clearly felt more at home at Antonín Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony, displaying a fuller sound and a broader spectrum of colours. It was again the principal horn – seemingly the only one on stage enjoying himself – who stood out from the orchestra, waving his hand as if he wanted to conduct himself to drive forward the playing, chatting with his desk partner and even making notes in his score. It will be his gleaming solos that I most remember from the orchestra’s performance.

The encore, the Furiant from Bedřich Smetana’s The Bartered Bride, seemed to finally wake up the orchestra. It was a shame they didn't play at this level the whole evening.