Wednesday, October 19, 2011


October 14

A brilliant performance by an outstanding soloist.

Brno pianist Igor Ardašev doesnt perform in Prague very often. In fact, he doesn’t perform very much anywhere these days, preferring a quiet life in Moravia to the rigors of concert tours. Which is a shame, as Ardašev is arguably the finest pianist in the country, a laureate of Prague Spring and the International Tchaikovsky Competition, just to mention two of his many awards, and a recording star for Supraphon.

So it was treat to see him onstage with the Czech Philharmonic last week, and for an outstanding piece: Martinů’s Piano concerto No. 4,Incantation.” A two-movement work composed in New York in the mid-1950s, the concerto preceded Martinů’s monumental, groundbreaking opera The Greek Passion, and shares a number of its elements – a free-form structure, cinematic orchestration, neoclassical in some respects but unmistakably modern. It’s an exhilarating work that calls for a highly disciplined yet flexible approach.

Ardašev was brilliant, attacking the piece with a sharp staccato style that fell just short of banging. Lots of pianists can hammer way on demanding solos; few can do it with the finesse that Ardašev showed, matching the intensity of the orchestra without losing any fluency or precision. Even in the frantic piano passages that start to cascade in the second movement, he played with elegance and fine attention to detail.

In some ways, his encore, Martinů’s Obkročák, was even more impressive. With room for phrasing and expression, Ardašev opened up his style and turned a brief dance into a smart, playful romp. He walks the keyboard like he owns it, one of those remarkable musicians with complete mastery of his instrument. His performance left this critic wishing that Ardašev would venture out more – not just for classical concerts, but into other types of music. It would be fascinating to see what he could do with some jazz standards.

The second half of the 20th-century program was a performance of the complete Firebird ballet score by Stravinsky, a welcome commemoration of the composer’s death (he died in 1971). Typically The Firebird is performed in concert as a suite, which this critic had always assumed was enough. But hearing the entire work was a revelation – the way it builds, the overlapping lines, the solo passages for bassoon and flute in full context, the vivid colors that flash and turn and shimmer in movement after unprecedented movement. In its totality, the piece is so rich and expressive that having dancers perform the narrative seems almost superfluous.

Conductor Eliahu Inbal showed tremendous command, steering the orchestra through all the drama and wild swings of mood and tone with careful balance and striking agility. Segueing adroitly from gossamer enchantments to explosions of infernal dancing, he maintained a consistent internal core while emphasizing elements of whimsy, fantasy and suspense. Inbal built the piece to maximum volume and impact, but kept the playing crisp and sensitive, never overwhelming.

For fans of quieter music, the Czech Philharmonic Quartet offered a tasty program earlier in the week at the other end of the Rudolfinum, in Suk Hall. Many members of the orchestra play in chamber groups, and this one is particularly good, embodying a highly skilled, straightforward approach to the music. At this appearance, the group seemed to be warming up with Mozart’s String Quartet in G major (K 387), but picked up the pace nicely with two short Shostakovich pieces, and finished with an inspired rendition of Fibich’s String Quartet No. 2 in G major, imbuing its rich melodies with deep resonance and colorful contrasts.

All of which offers a reminder of why the Czech Philharmonic is still the standard-bearer in a city with five working orchestras and innumerable chamber groups. Each has its strengths and specialties. But for authoritative, intelligent interpretations of a broad repertoire, the Czech Philharmonic is still the ticket.

To hear Igor Ardašev play Martinů’s Obkročák:

For more on the Czech Philharmonic Quartet:

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