What exactly is it? A symphony? A musical poem? A tone poem? A suite of symphonic poems? Sorting out the nomenclature is the easy bit. It’s a piece in five movements which runs in most performances to about 50 minutes, in effect the kind of symphonic suite created by Rimsky-Korsakov in his Scheherezade. What does it sound like? That’s rather more difficult: listen to the first movement and you are reminded of Delius, Debussy, Scriabin even. By the time we get to the fourth movement, intriguingly titled “In the power of phantoms”, the phantasmagorical elements in the music hark back to the opium-fuelled recreation of a witches’ sabbath by Berlioz.

Jakub Hrůša conducts the Czech Philharmonic
© Petr Kadlec

It is Suk’s A Summer’s Tale. However many influences come to mind, it still requires a strong and individual personality to fuse all the elements into a convincing whole. That was something recognised by none other than Mahler, who just a few months before his death announced his intention of conducting the work in the following concert season.

There were many moments in this richly detailed and passionately committed performance given by the Czech Philharmonic under Jakub Hrůša when the glorious outpouring of late European Romanticism was on display, woven together to form a powerful and shimmering tapestry of colour. To be sure, there were the echoes of Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (written a decade before Suk’s work) in the Vivacissimo sections of the fourth movement. But how many other composers of that period had the musical daring to write anything like his central intermezzo called “Blind Musicians”, in which until the last few bars only six instruments are heard: two bardic harps, and then two cor anglais players, duetting together beautifully here, followed by a solo viola and then a solo violin. Running like a constant theme was what the composer himself acknowledged to be central: “I find consolation in nature.”

Jakub Hrůša conducts the Czech Philharmonic
© Petr Kadlec

Suk writes for a huge orchestra including six horns, an organ and celesta, but – like Mahler – he uses it very sparingly, opting very often for unusual combinations and drawing on their particular sonorities. Hrůša’s ear for orchestral colour was evident throughout, not least in the evocation of a languorous heat haze in the “Midday” movement where above the softest of extended string tremolos Suk places piccolo, bass clarinet and horns, with even darker hues from muted trombones and tuba. He creates great frescoes and huge arches of sound and contrasts these with vignettes of incredible intimacy, all magically realised here by the Czech players.

Not much evidence of social distancing on a very full platform, with only a smattering of face masks together with shots of the empty yet beautifully grand interior of the Rudolfinum as a reminder of the times in which we are now living. Michael Beyer’s sensitive and tasteful video realisation was a model of its kind.

Alisa Weilerstein
© Petr Kadlec

Speaking in an interval interview about her choice of Elgar’s Cello Concerto, Alisa Weilerstein drew a link between the Spanish flu epidemic at the time of its composition and the present-day, highlighting the sense of loss and nostalgia for the old normality that underlie this work. She and Hrůša formed a highly effective partnership, their mutual empathy evident in the exchange of smiles and the way subtle changes in dynamics operated in synchrony. There was much to admire in the soloist’s dark and intense colouring, matched by the earthy sounds of the Czech woodwind. The Adagio was suffused with warmth and nobility, and in the concluding Allegro both soloist and conductor were alive to the many quicksilver changes in mood and emphasis.


This performance was reviewed from the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra's video stream

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