Thursday, September 29, 2011


Miraculous sounds from the diminutive Midori.

The sheer volume of talent that rolled through the Rudolfinum over the past three weeks was neatly captured in the tag line for Dvořák’s Prague: “40 Stars, 22 Concerts, 1 Festival.” At times, it was dizzying trying to keep track of the rotating cast of orchestras, conductors and soloists. This critic joined the action about halfway through the festival, and came away delighted, disappointed and ODed on Dvořák.

Far and away the most interesting soloists were Russian pianist Nikolai Lugansky and Japanese violinist Midori. Both are acclaimed masters of their instrument who defy the normal laws of playing.

Even more impressive in recital.
It was particularly interesting to see Lugansky, whose previous appearances in Prague have been with symphony orchestras. This time he gave a solo recital, which afforded him an opportunity to stretch out on a series of short Chopin pieces and Liszt’s Years of Pilgrimage and Transcendental Etudes. He started smooth as ripples on water with both composers, flowing into keyboard runs so fast that his hands became a blur, and on the final Liszt piece, building to a fiery passion without sacrificing any technical command. Lugansky can wring more out of a single note or pregnant pause than many pianists find in an entire concerto; at other times, there seems to be more sound coming from the piano than two hands can possibly produce. It’s amazing to see live.

Playing Beethoven’s Concerto in D major Op. 61 with the Czech Philharmonic, Midori also seemed to be making music beyond the capacity of two hands and four strings. But she was on the other end of spectrum, weaving intricate melodies and extended trills so fine they could have slipped through the eye of a needle. On every level – stylistically, technically, emotionally – it was a virtuoso performance, particularly with the sensitive support of conductor Petr Altrichter. The orchestra never once overwhelmed Midori, matching her quiet delicacy on repeating phrases and swelling to Beethovenesque volume only during solo breaks. And her encore, the fugue from Bach’s Sonata in A minor, left one violinist in the audience breathlessly declaring, “I saw a miracle tonight!”

German cellist Jan Vogler, playing Schumann’s Concerto in A minor Op. 129, didn’t live up to his billing. He arrived on stage late and not in tune, and seemed to be having an off-night playing as well. It was unfortunate; Vogler is certainly better than that, as is the Prague Philharmonia, which sounded lackluster and colorless under the baton of Benjamin Wallfisch. The British conductor struck a lively tone and tempo with Martinů’s Partita for string orchestra, but had no feel for Dvořák’s Czech Suite Op. 39.

Hipster Hardenberger.
Finnish conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste, on the other hand, was a revelation, pulling a brilliant performance out of the WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne with a cool, controlled style. Two Beethoven pieces – the Coriolanus overture and Symphony No. 5 – were everything Beethoven should be, bursting with life and energy and noble ideas. The turns of phrase and fancy breaks were dazzling, and even in the high-volume passages, the orchestra’s sound was clear and clean. Trumpet soloist Håkan Hardenberger came onstage looking like he had stepped out of a jazz club, with hipster glasses and a long purple waistcoat. He did a credible job on Haydn’s Concerto in E flat major, but sounded even better in his encore, a soft, slow jazz take on Rodgers and Hart’s My Funny Valentine.

It’s surprising that no one has offered Canadian conductor Julian Kuerti a permanent position, given the poise he showed with the Monte Carlo Philharmonic. Individual sections of the orchestra sounded better than the entire ensemble on Gershwin’s An American in Paris and Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, suite No. 2, though that seemed to be mostly a function of its size – nearly 100 players jammed onto the Rudolfinum stage, too many to allow for any definition or dynamics. The size and volume also overwhelmed piano soloist Olga Scheps, whose soft touch was lost in big blasts of Rachmaninov’s Concerto No. 2 in D minor. Scheps’ style seems too lyrical for the harsh Russian repertoire; it would be interesting to see her again with a Romantic piece and a quieter orchestra.

And as noted in this space last week, Maestro Muhai Tang made an impressive showing with his Zhejiang Symphony Orchestra. In an interview before the concert, Tang did his best to lower expectations, noting that the orchestra has only been playing serious Western music for two years. But technically the players were sharp, and with the addition of seasoned soloists on traditional instruments, the Chinese pieces were a treat – bright, clever and colorful. 

The same might be said for the entire Dvořák’s Prague festival, which in just its fourth season has become a worthy fall counterpoint to Prague Spring. Tradition doesnt come as quickly; the festival will need time to build its standing and bona fides. But with a solid youth marketing program in place and the budget to sign big stars, Dvořák’s Prague seems well-positioned for a long run. 

For more on the performers in this years festival, see:

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