Wednesday, December 8, 2010


Mr. Culture is off for a holiday break in the States, so the reviews are on hiatus until the new year. However, the calendar will be kept fresh – there’s a wealth of great seasonal music in Prague this month.

And here are some Christmas gift suggestions. Along with outstanding musicians, the Czech Republic is blessed with good music labels, and friends at two of my favorites – Supraphon and Indies Scope – were kind enough to pass along some of their latest releases for review. Once again, there’s an impressive array of original sounds and high-caliber performances. Share them with friends, and you’ll also be supporting a deserving local music industry.


Hot stuff! A clever and witty blend of jazz, rock and techno, with dashes of reggae rhythms and gypsy violin. Great dance music, but the razor-sharp production and smart arrangements make it well worth a sit-down listen. Frank Zappa is mentioned as one of the references, though what this disc really brings to mind is the high-octane ’80s new wave band Oingo Boingo. Fresh, fast-paced and good fun. (Indies Scope)

Tara Fuki/Sens

Their fourth release finds the cello/vocalist duo in a more intimate mood, forgoing flashy production and digressions into other genres in favor of meditative melody lines and gentle, yearning vocals. As always, the effect is haunting, a journey to inner depths and faraway places. Dorota Barová offers evocative improv vocals on two cuts, “Tobě” and “Moment,” and Andrea Konstankiewicz makes tasty use of her hang, a type of steel drum. Ten years after they started, Tara Fuki still has one of the most original sounds around. (Indies Scope)

Poletíme?/Jednoduché písničky o složitém životě

The band describes their music as “original banjo punk future jazz,” a good description of a repertoire that veers wildly from dance hall waltzes to Dixieland-style clap-along revelry. Gypsy flavors, touches of Balkan horns and a driving banjo fuel a raucous sound that rivals the reckless energy of Gogol Bordello. The lyrics are impenetrable Czech, but the enthusiasm is contagious. Also check out group’s newest release, Skupina dobře vypadajících mužů. (Indies Scope)

That’s just a small sampling of the incredible variety on the Indies label, where you’ll also find great groups like the Yellow Sisters, Traband, Jablkoň and Už jsme doma. See and hear more at:

Zuzana Lapčiková/Marija Panna přečistá

An imaginative crossover project that works. For this recording of Moravian Advent and Christmas songs, the smart folks at Supraphon paired Lapčiková, a Moravian folksinger and cimbalom player, with a gypsy violinist and members of her jazz quintet. The result is a bright, engaging sound that takes on new dimensions with every cut. Lapčiková’s voice is a perfect fit with the music, which ranges from spiritual meditations to holiday exuberance. This one is good listening any time of year. (Supraphon)

Collegium Marianum/František Jiránek Concertos & Sinfonias

The latest release in Supraphon’s “Music from Eighteenth-Century Prague” series features the work of an overlooked Czech composer who studied in Venice, likely under the direct tutelage of Antonio Vivaldi. So it’s not surprising that a lot of the music sounds like Vivaldi lite, or at least reflects the dominant Italian style of early 1700s. However, the solo bassoon lines are Jiránek’s own, played expertly on this disc by early music specialist Sergio Azzolini. Collegium Marianum provides top-notch backing on period instruments, led by spirited flute lines from Jana Semerádová. A smart, soothing addition to any Baroque collection. And watch for the next in the series due out imminently, a recording of Anton Reichenauer concertos by Vacláv Luks’ Collegium 1704 ensemble. (Supraphon)

Prague Philharmonia/Má Vlast

The opening concert honors at Prague Spring this year went to the Prague Philharmonia, a surprise given the orchestra’s junior status. But as this recording of their performance attests, the players were up to the challenge. Under the baton of rising star Jakub Hrůša, they gave a spirited rendition of Smetana’s seminal cycle of symphonic poems, showing a nice combination of emotional expression and technical finesse. While not a commanding or definitive version of Má Vlast, this disc offers an informed but accessible entree point to Smetana’s oeuvre – and an important historical marker for a growing ensemble. (Supraphon)

Ivo Kahánek/Chopin Scherzi & Sonata No. 3

Does the world really need another Chopin recording? Probably not, but Kahánek chose pieces that are not often recorded, and certainly has something original to say with them. In particular, his ability to find common threads in the four disparate scherzi opens some new doors. Eschewing a purely virtuoso approach in favor of a more open, dramatic style, Kahánek manages to play with both control and spontaneity. A thoughtful work, mostly for aficionados. (Supraphon)

Pavel Haas Quartet/Dvořák String Quartets in G major(Op. 106) & F major (Op. 96)

In February, Gramaphone magazine ran a photo of this award-winning ensemble on its cover with the headline, “The World’s Most Exciting String Quartet?” There was no need to add the question mark, at least for this reviewer. The quartet brings a unique energy and flavor to everything it touches, and this recording is no exception, bursting with the New World enthusiasm and inspiration that Dvořák felt in America. Unfortunately, the quartet doesn’t play in Prague often; they’re too much in demand abroad. This recording shows why. (Supraphon)

Check out other new Supraphon releases and the label’s impressive catalog at:

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.

Thursday, December 2, 2010


State Opera
December 1

No less a personage than Marie Antoinette was in the audience for the premiere of Johann Christian Bach’s Amadis de Gaule at the Académie Royale de Musique in Paris on December 14, 1799. Presumably the cast was more modest than the huge ensemble assembled on the State Opera stage for a concert version of the opera last night, which included a 50-piece orchestra, a 20-voice choir and nine soloists, several of whom came with visiting French conductor Didier Talpain. No dancers, but no complaints about the performance, a smart, satisfying slice of classic late 18th-century opera.

Maestro Talpain.
Bach’s Amadis is often mentioned in the same breath as Mozart’s Don Giovanni (1787) and Beethoven’s Fidelio (1805), principally in terms of the orchestration. But the overall sound and structure is also very similar; indeed, if you walked into the middle of a performance of Amadis without knowing what it was, those two contemporaries would come immediately to mind. Which is not to denigrate Bach’s music. He had a seemingly endless supply of captivating melodies, and in some respects Amadis is like a template for the next 100 years of European opera, with passages that could fit easily into later works by, say, Rossini or even Bizet.

Talpain drew a brisk performance from the orchestra, which was a melding of two regional Baroque specialty groups – Marek Štryncl’s Musica Florea from Prague, and Miloš Valent’s Solamente Naturali, which is based in Bratislava. Talpain works regularly with Solamente Naturali, with whom he has made well-received recordings of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach symphonies and Johann Nepomuk Hummel’s opera Mathilda von Guise. That may partly account for the smooth flow of the music last night, which did not have much depth but pulsed with bright lyrical energy, gliding through complicated passages like a skater on ice – an apt reflection of the snowstorm raging outside.

It’s a risky business bringing any Baroque ensemble to Prague, where local ears are attuned to the high standards set by Collegium 1704 and Collegium Marianum. There’s no way that a 50-piece pickup band playing mostly modern instruments is going to duplicate that caliber of sound. But Talpain has a very good feel for the music, and his enthusiasm and intelligence were evident in the spirited singing and playing of everyone on the stage.

The five primary soloists all needed some time to warm up, not really hitting full voice until the second and third acts. Hjördis Thébaultová, the first one on the stage (as Arcabonne), had a smaller voice than her colleagues, but good dramatic soprano skills that were impressive within her range. Baritone Pierre-Yves Pruvot (as her scheming brother Arcalaüs) provided a solid counterpart, and in the third act showed he could carry an extended aria.

 Top of the line tenor Do.
Philippe Do (Amadis) had the strongest voice of the evening, a classic romantic tenor with a slightly darker hue that contrasted nicely with the music. Katia Velletazová (as his lover Oriane) struck up a lovely duet with Do in the first act, then grew stronger over the course of evening, showing solid range and expression, if not much power. Soprano Liliana Faraon (Urgande, the good sorceress) flitted on and off the stage with coloratura lines that floated like snowflakes.

Some of the most interesting vocals in Amadis, at least for this reviewer, belong to the chorus – more traditional Baroque passages of layered, overlapping melodies. Musica Florea’s regular vocal ensemble made the most of the choral parts, combining tight, disciplined singing with strong surges of emotion.

It all made for a very pleasant evening – lightweight, certainly, the kind of music that sparkles in performance and leaves you humming afterward, but has evaporated by the next morning. Still, the care that Talpain and his large troupe devoted to the piece was obvious. And the concert performance was a smart way to go, stripping Amadis down to its essentials. The story was well-worn even in 1799. But Bachs music is still a delight to hear.