Monday, December 6, 2010


Suk Hall, Rudolfinum
St. Lawrence Church
December 5

Jakub Dvořák, Zuzana Hájková, Jiří Poslední and Pavel Eret. 

Confronted with another grim, grey wintry day in Prague, where does one go for succor and spiritual sustenance? To hear Mozart, of course. But that was just the starting point of last night’s cultural excursion, a classic run through the highs, lows and surreal best that Prague has to offer.

The Czech Philharmonic Quartet plays Mozart as well as anyone in town, and yesterday they were at Suk Hall, a cozy chamber music room in the fabulous Rudolfinum. First violinist Pavel Eret started the proceedings by lighting two candles on an Advent wreath, then sat down and dove into the String Quartet No. 19 in C major (K. 465), better-known as “The Dissonant” for its melancholy adagio introduction. That’s a difficult place to start a piece, much less a concert, and it didn’t quite work, sounding more droopy than dark. But the bright burst that followed took off nicely, with the quartet settling into an energetic but disciplined groove.

The group showed both technical mastery and thoughtful interpretation with the piece, exploring its darker timbres and colors, and eschewing the obvious emphases to give it a more nuanced character. The most remarkable quality of the quartet’s sound is its combination of depth and dexterity; it’s solid and full, with cellist Jakub Dvořák providing a resonant bottom, yet light enough to dance nimbly through complex lyrical passages. By the fourth movement, the music had a voice and life of its own, soaring and swirling like snow in the streetlights.

And that was just the warm-up. The quartet owns the second piece, Mozart’s String Quartet No. 17 in B flat major (K. 458, “The Hunt”), which it recorded for the Japanese Exton label. From the opening bars, the sound was completely organic, like one voice instead of four, spirited yet dignified. Pavel Eret set the bar with virtuoso playing in the first movement, and the second was a study in being tender without sacrificing quality. The third movement is an exercise in control, with many complicated layers and breaks, that the group fit together expertly. And the final movement was impassioned yet cool, a remarkable synthesis of joy and restraint.

I’m astounded,” the Professor said after the applause had died down, and I had to agree. It was an impressive performance. And it seemed even more impressive after Dr. Janovský leaned over and opined, “A little better than the Leipzig quartet.” Indeed, I had forgotten about our disappointment with the Leipziger Streichquartett, a highly lauded string quartet that visited Prague two weeks ago. The Czech Philharmonic Quartet was in fact light years better, on every level, no question, hands-down, thank you to all the angels and saints for the sophisticated caliber of music we enjoy in Prague.

The air of elegance dissipated rapidly outside, where a group of revelers was dancing beneath a tall menorah sculpture to Hanukkah music blasting from unseen loudspeakers. The Professor, being of the Jewish persuasion, was eager to join in, but that would have cut into our drinking time at U Rudolfina, a working-class redoubt a stone’s throw from the storied concert hall. The usual chain-smoking misfits were parked at the bar and tables, setting just the right lowbrow atmosphere for banging back two thirst-quenching Pilsner Urquells before setting off through the snow for our next destination, St. Lawrence Church across the river.

A bitter chill it was, to cop a line from Keats, but as we trudged through the drifts, our attention was captured by the angels and devils roaming the streets. Last night was Mikuláš, the eve of the feast of St. Nicholas, when by tradition a trio of St. Nick, an angel and a devil visit Czech homes to reward good children and punish bad ones. Many adults have vivid memories of being terrified by these visits, made to sing and then desperately hoping the devil wouldn’t take them away. Now it’s more like a yuletide Halloween, with both kids and adults running the streets in golden angel wings and blinking red devil’s horns.

St. Lawrence, a renovated medieval chapel that is one of the best places in town to hear chamber music, was full for the second night of the Atelier 90 Třídení plus concerts celebrating the group’s 20th anniversary. We arrived just in time for the opening piece, a relatively conventional sonata for flute and piano by Vlastislav Matoušek. Easy on the ears and capably performed by flutist Jana Jarkovská and pianist Lucie Čižková in matching red satin outfits, it set the stage for the second work, a vocal treatment of Psalms 23 & 121 by Věra Čermáková. Baritone Petr Matuszek and alto Markéta Dvořáková handled the two contrasting vocal lines nicely, reaching from Gregorian chants to modern dissonance with aplomb.

Two electronic pieces were chiefly of academic interest. Tape Music No. 2, by the late Zbyněk Vostřák, probably seemed revolutionary when it was written in 1969, but sounds dated now. A new work for oboe and electronics, Pavel Kopecký’s Song for Eurydice, gave oboist Vilém Veverka a good workout against a background of shifting textures, though Jaroslav Smolka’s combination of eight female voices and clarinet in the next piece, Epigrams on K.H. Borovsky, provided a more satisfying sound.

A grand showing by Goodson.
Pianist Patricia Goodson took on an interesting challenge with Hanuš Bartoň’s Music for Piano, written for her in 1998. It’s a difficult work, and Goodson showed both dexterity and fluency with its many complicated runs up and down the keyboard, and shifting moods and tempos.

Veverka returned for a short duo with cellist Petr Nouzovský, the late Isang Yun’s East-West Miniature I, which brought to mind the air raid sirens that still blast away on the first Wednesday of every month in Prague. And Marek Kopelent demonstrated why he is the current dean of Czech composers with the closing piece, a 1978 toccata. Two top-of-the-line players, pianist Daniel Wiesner and violinist Jan Pěruška, offered a riveting rendition of its piercing string lines and explosive chords on the keyboard. Though Kopelent was working under a heavy communist yoke, the piece sounds as revolutionary as anything written in the West at the time.

Needless to say, more beers were in order after such a strenuous evening. We marched through driving snow to a tourist pub near Malostranské náměstí, and might have lingered late. But the staff started closing up around us, stacking chairs on tables and throwing open the front doors to let in a steady blast of cold air. We got the message and left before devils could be summoned to carry us away.

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