The Czech Philharmonic performance of Smetana's Má vlast marked 30 years since Czechoslovakia’s first free elections, and yet the playing in an empty Rudolfinum Hall was more somber than celebratory, the intensity greatest in the movements which dealt with war and peace, that told about kingdoms and their rise and fall. With Prague under lockdown, the orchestra played with a seriousness of purpose that transcended the folk traditions and folk music on which the six symphonic poems are based and which still circulates in the blood of the mostly-Czech orchestra today.  In times of peace, even Czech orchestras inevitably focus on the cycle as being VltavaZ českých luhů a hájů and four other poems. But in a time of crisis it was the other four that mattered.

Semyon Bychkov
© Petra Hajská

Whether it was the golden pride with which they imbued the massive Vyšehrad Leitmotif, the precise intricacy with which they traced the brief but treacherous string fugue, or the color and depth with which they bloomed into the sweeps of sound and melody, it was always as if Smetana had been writing the music for these players and for the instruments they were playing. The woodwinds were less "characteristically" acidic as heard on the historical recordings of Václav Talich and Karel Ančerl because the Czech Philharmonic in 2020 has access to the best instruments in the world. The strings, led by Josef Špaček, had their timeless characteristic warmth. And on this special night commemorating a Velvet Revolution which heralded a time which suddenly and ironically seems more optimistic than ours, playing without an audience, amidst a plague, the orchestra played with more gravity.

Semyon Bychkov was the ideal conductor for communicating the immensity of Smetana's vision and for responding to the circumstance. He gave the orchestra the time to prepare and trigger phrase after phrase with just the right sense of timing; the build-up to the climax of Vyšehrad was one such sequence, spellbinding in every respect, and similar in its integrity of line and purpose to the orchestra's historical predecessors. Šárka may have lacked a truly terrifying savage edge but the end erupted the way it should, headlong, in danger of getting out of control. The camera captured a violinist frantically turning a page, the clarinets and bassoons bobbing and weaving, Bychkov urging them on to greater and greater. It all turned out well.

Semyon Bychkov conducts the Czech Philharmonic
© Petra Hajská

The camerawork was brilliant throughout, whether it was groups or individuals, timpani rolls or a harpist's bardic strokes, as vivid and sexy as the music making, A closeup of the piccolo player's sweaty upper lip as Vltava drove relentlessly and hugely towards the end contrasted with the shot of a solitary young fellow at the big bass drum taking sudden action before returning to his customary patient pose. Using the added reverb of the empty hall to good effect, the engineers supplied spectacular audiophile sound.

This performance was reviewed from the Czech Philharmonic's Facebook stream