The opening concert of the Prague Spring festival is hallowed ground. For nearly a half-century after Rafael Kubelík took the podium to launch the first one in 1946, the opening slot was reserved for the Czech Philharmonic and its chief conductor playing Bedřich Smetanaʼs Má vlast. The cycle of six symphonic poems, which takes listeners on an enchanting tour of Bohemian lands and legends, holds a special place in Czech hearts. And who better to play it than the countryʼs premier orchestra?

Daniel Barenboim conducting at the Prague Spring © Ivan Malý
Daniel Barenboim conducting at the Prague Spring
© Ivan Malý

In recent years guest conductors and orchestras have been invited to offer fresh interpretations, with mixed results. Last year, Paavo Järvi led the Czech Philharmonic in an upbeat, cosmopolitan version that eschewed the usual homeland sentimentality and took a straightforward classical approach, adding a new dimension to the work. This year a dream team of Daniel Barenboim and the Vienna Philharmonic proved to be a disappointment.

A listener arriving mid-concert could have been forgiven for thinking he was hearing Tchaikovsky, Mahler or even Wagner. The dimensions of the music were huge, and the sound and interpretation were mostly about dynamics. Barenboimʼs mastery of that skill was apparent in an exquisitely delicate opening of double harps that quickly gave way to crashing crescendos which grew in volume over the evening until they made the floor vibrate. The impact was undeniable but empty, bombastic rather than regal, far removed the gentle landscapes and proud history the piece usually invokes. 

The Vienna Philharmonic plays <i>Má vlast</i> © Ivan Malý
The Vienna Philharmonic plays Má vlast
© Ivan Malý

Even stripped of sentimentality, Má vlast has an arc – not a strict narrative, but a sense of an unfolding tapestry that portrays a country and its people with a sense of wonder and discovery. There was very little of that. Nor was there the melodic flow one might expect from the paragons of Viennese style. Instead, the music lurched from one outsized climax to the next, as if the orchestra were attacking the piece rather than playing it, an impression reinforced by the forceful body language of the musicians and Barenboimʼs repeated stabbing motions with the baton. 

The woodwinds were the stars of the evening, particularly in the famous second movement (The Moldau, more commonly known as Vltava in the Czech lands), creating airy, pastoral atmospherics in the opening and later blending beautifully with the harps and strings to paint sunlight glistening on the waves. Skillful execution of a complicated wind passage in the fifth movement (Tábor) offered a glimpse of the orchestraʼs real caliber and gift for creating truly transportive music. But again, it was only a brief glimpse. For much of the evening, the sound was thick and overwhelming, leaving little space for nuance or detail.

The Vienna Philharmonic plays <i>Má vlast</i> © Ivan Malý
The Vienna Philharmonic plays Má vlast
© Ivan Malý

The performance was especially disappointing given Barenboimʼs showing at last yearʼs festival with the Staatskapelle Berlin. Faced with a daunting Bruckner work (Symphony no. 5) and the difficult acoustics of Smetana Hall, he led a masterful performance, offering a riveting, insightful interpretation and crafting a balance of sound and level of transparency that not many conductors are able to achieve in that space. Despite its intensity, that music had freedom and momentum, taking listeners on a compelling journey. Má vlast was more mechanical than heartfelt, and went nowhere except to an explosive ending that left a grand tradition shattered rather than renewed.