Wednesday, March 14, 2012


March 9

Conductor Inbal and soloist Špaček: a formidable team.

If there were any doubts about 25-year old Josef Špaček being the premier Czech violinist of his generation, they were laid to rest at the Czech Philharmonic concert on Friday night. In two short, fiendishly difficult pieces, Špaček showed a technical mastery and musical fluency of someone twice his age.

The opening piece, Janáček’s single-movement violin concerto Pilgrimage of the Soul, is a string of seven segments that the composer left unfinished, incorporating some of the material into his final opera, From the House of the Dead. A version completed by contemporary Czech composers Leoš Faltus and Miloš Štědroň finally debuted in 1988, with three sets of timpanis anchoring a succession of light and dark passages that range from enchanting melodies to high-pitched strains of longing and anguish.

The concerto opens with an extended violin solo that Špaček nailed with precision and feeling, setting a commanding tone that never wavered through the subsequent crash of percussion, ominous rumbles of brass and winsome woodwinds. He segued seamlessly from harmonic passages with the strings to dissonant strains that run harsh against the full orchestra, playing with a skillful combination of emotion and intensity. It was the kind of performance that one can experience only in the Czech lands, a product of both tradition and training.

Playing with fire.
Ravel’s Tzigne rhapsody was accurately described in the program as a “veritable minefield” for violinists, packed with nearly impossible technical demands. It would perhaps be insulting to say that Špaček made it look easy – no serious player approaches this piece lightly. But he showed a virtuoso command of the material, once again opening with an extended solo that was both passionate and proficient. His technique throughout the remainder of the piece was dazzling, in particular the razor-sharp pizzicato passages. By the end, even the orchestra was applauding.

After those two pieces, Špaček’s encore – Massenet’s Meditation from Thais – seemed like simple fare, a lullaby for overtaxed hands and ears. But it gave Špaček an opportunity to show that he can do sweet and tender as well as sharp and intense, and a chance to play a duet with the orchestra’s star harpist, Jana Boušková. It was beautifully rendered, rich and delicately balanced, like fine vintage wine.

One of the reasons Špaček sounded so good was the man at the podium: Eliahu Inbal, the Czech Philharmonic’s chief conductor. His handling of the intricate colors in Janáček’s concerto and nuances in the orchestration of Tzigne not only gave the violinist a solid foundation to work off of, but created a dynamic and resonant interplay between soloist and orchestra.

Inbal brought those same sensitivities to Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, drawing a strikingly clean, well-articulated sound out of a large orchestra and full choir. Befitting a ballet score, the piece runs through dizzying changes in mood, texture and tempo, rising through vertiginous ascending scales and then collapsing in impressionist waves and jazz-inflected swirls. Inbal kept it all smooth, polished and moving forward with a driving internal momentum that made the idea of dancers seem almost superfluous. The orchestra was as agile as it has been in many months – particularly at that size – and the Czech Philharmonic Choir Brno gave the wordless choral accents a lustrous quality.

It was interesting to sample reactions to the piece after the concert. Daphnis et Chloé is nearly an hour long, and heads were noticeably nodding near the end, so it wasn’t surprising to hear complaints about its length. The number of motifs is small – a deliberate decision by the composer to give the piece symphonic unity, though the repetition can also make it seem interminable.

None of which mattered to this critic. Opportunities to hear Ravel don’t come along very often in Prague, much less performances of this caliber. If it was a lot to absorb at once, it was nonetheless a welcome program, brilliantly executed by an outstanding group of musicians – and a soloist who well deserves his position as concertmaster of the Czech Philharmonic.

For more on Josef Špaček:

Photos courtesy of the Czech Philharmonic

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