This concert was to have featured Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, but Dvořák’s Eighth replaced it. This permitted separate sets of players to perform in each half, reducing coronavirus transmission risks, since the first half of Shostakovich’s Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and Strings needs much less than the full orchestra. The Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, in common with other famous ensembles, might not sound as distinctive as in previous generations, but they still own a great tradition with Dvořák at its heart. At times they played his genial Eighth with smiles on their faces. I am sure it put smiles on the faces of the rather small socially distanced audience too, beneath their face coverings. Charles Mackerras once dubbed Dvořák “the greatest of all the great composers”, a view that has not seen various Austro-German figures ejected from the Pantheon. But between his Brahms-influenced Seventh Symphony and his American-inflected Ninth, the Eighth gives us the purest Dvořák. In a performance as beguiling as this one, one thinks Mackerras might have had a point.

Semyon Bychkov conducts the Czech Philharmonic
© Petra Hajská

The string section did not seem to miss their absent colleagues, playing with sweet tone throughout. That tone was there from the outset, with the noble theme on cellos, clarinets, bassoons and horns given a warm glow like a welcome to an old friend, which for these players is what it is. The insouciant bird call on the flute that follows introduced an instrument and player that provided several of the delights coming from the wind section, still one of the glories of this orchestra.

Semyon Bychkov did not need to do much, dancing along to the swaying themes, occasionally softening the trombones, whipping up a bit of frenzy when needed. But then he has not been in charge that long. This first concert of the orchestra’s 125th season was the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of his predecessors in the post, Vaclav Neumann. Bychkov filmed a tribute to Neumann, and referenced those other Czech PO legends Václav Talich, Karel Ančerl and Rafael Kubelík. That is quite some pedigree to inherit, so he might well take his time before he imposes his vision of the Dvořák Eighth upon a group which has it in their bones. So perhaps there will be more excitement in future, but meanwhile the charm and lyricism of the music was beautifully brought out. The third movement almost defined the grazioso marking. 

Daniil Trifonov and Semyon Bychkov
© Petra Hajská

Shostakovich is very much the territory for the St Petersburg born Bychkov, as is the Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and Strings for Daniil Trifonov. The opening flourish from him and the muted trumpet of Selina Ott launched an account of the piece that was so skilful it made the work seem more than the sum of its parts. The solo trumpet is neglected by the composer at times, but Ott’s contributions were telling enough, especially in the hectic exchanges between the soloists and Bychkov’s alert string band. But as often happens with this piece, it is the unusual encore the soloists have to provide for their instruments which leaves the more vivid memory. Here it was Rachmaninov’s early song Sing not to me, beautiful maiden in a very effective transcription by the pianist, (finished ten minutes before to judge by the business with multiple sheets of music hastily shared out between the players). The filming rightly indulged the beauties of the Rudolfinum, but the hall’s short length front to back (twenty rows?) produces that harsh “Supraphon sound” at climaxes, a Barbican on the Vltava. But with the Czech PO in Dvořák, it just added to the nostalgia.

This performance was reviewed from the Medici live stream