Prague Spring roared to a spectacular finish with one of the most memorable programs in this yearʼs festival, capping a bold centenary celebration. Anywhere else in the world, the 100th anniversary of the founding of Czechoslovakia would be no more than a historical footnote. In Prague it provided the main theme for 20 concerts offering a rich tapestry of Czech and Slovak music and an impressive review of a world-class musical heritage. 

James Judd © Prague Spring | Petra Hajská
James Judd
© Prague Spring | Petra Hajská

Focusing primarily on works composed between 1918 and 2018, the programming ranged from familiar names like Pavel Haas and Bohuslav Martinů to lesser-known figures such as Alexander Moyzes and Miloslav Kabeláč, and included no fewer than seven newly commissioned works by Czech composers. The finale from the Slovak Philharmonic offered a bracing overview of the countryʼs three main regions – Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia – with an astounding centerpiece, Eugen Suchoňʼs Psalm of the Carpathian Land. 

Suchoň is considered the godfather of modern Slovak music, and his 1938 cantata for tenor, mixed choir and large orchestra has come to be regarded as a touchstone of national identity. In that sense it mirrored the traditional opening performance of Má vlast (My country), Smetanaʼs lyrical tribute to his Czech homeland. But that is where the comparisons end. If Smetanaʼs piece is a picturesque cruise down the Vltava, Suchoňʼs is a terrifying trek through the valley of the shadow of death, with plenty of evil to fear.

The text is taken from an eponymous poem by Czech author Jaroslav Zatloukal, which describes an oppressed people struggling to survive in a ravaged land beneath the Carpathian Mountains. A few lines give the flavor of both the language and the music: “wrapped in terrorʼs shawl / gnawed to the bone / flayed by the scourge of poverty.” Suchoň offers hopeful notes to open and close the piece, and occasional moments of respite, but his score is mostly cataclysmic, with thunder and lightning raging in the orchestra while the chorus blazes with primal laments. With some particularly inventive work in the low strings, the composer grabs listeners by the throat early on and never lets up, ratcheting up the intensity with every turn into another torment.

Slovak Philharmonic © Prague Spring | Petra Hajská
Slovak Philharmonic
© Prague Spring | Petra Hajská

British conductor James Judd, just finishing his first season as Chief Conductor of the Slovak Philharmonic, showed a remarkable grasp of the piece and superb skills in holding together a high-volume assault that threatened to fly apart at any moment. The musicians sounded like they were playing not just from their hearts, but from their very DNA. When the Slovak Philharmonic Choir came in it was like sudden torrential sheets of rain, and tenor Jan Vacík sounded like he was pleading for help – which is to say, he nailed the part. In all, the performance offered a vivid illustration of why Psalm of the Carpathian Land was a major success in its time, and left more than one audience member wondering why itʼs not performed more today. 

The evening opened in Bohemia with Zdeněk Fibichʼs festival overture Comenius. Composed in 1892 for the tricentennial commemoration of the seminal Czech theologian and educator, itʼs a serious work that portrays a lifetime of struggle ending in triumph. Judd pumped it full of energy and vitality, giving the orchestra an opportunity to show its emotional character and capacity for rich colors. These attributes also came to the fore in the closing piece from Moravia, Janáčekʼs brassy, ringing Sinfonietta. Judd and his players rendered it in a softer, less martial tone than one typically hears in Prague, taking the edge off the brass and giving it a generally lighter feel. By the end the sound had grown thick and was losing definition, but as an affirmation of a proud musical history, the piece – and indeed, the entire evening – was glorious. 

For decades, Prague Spring wrapped with a traditional performance of Beethovenʼs Symphony no. 9, and there are still many longtime festival-goers who miss it. But this concert showed what a truly creative close can offer – a summary and synthesis of thematic ideas, a powerful musical sense of place and fresh sounds from both old and new composers. At the age of 73, the grande dame of European festivals seems as innovative and spry as ever.