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Gardiner and the Czech Philharmonic

Smetana Hall
05/18/2001 -  
Antonín Dvorak: Polednice (The Noon Witch), op. 108.
Hector Berlioz:Les Nuits D´été, op. 7
Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5 in D minor, op. 47.

Bernarda Fink (mezzo-soprano)
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir John Elliot Gardiner (conductor)

My first exposure to Shostakovich’s Fifth came courtesy of a Supraphon recording of a version played by the Czech Philharmonic, conducted by Václav Neumann. They played the piece as though it is roughly analogous to Beethoven’s Fifth. In the Finale, the Czech Philharmonic emerged from the long, overwhelmingly tense Largo, if not into a blaze of C-major triumph, at least into a warm and vibrant sense of closure. I was therefore somewhat surprised to read, in Ted Libbey’s NPR Guide to Building a Classical CD Collection, that the “... march that ends the movement represents the triumph of evil over good.” Returning to the Supraphon issue, I was puzzled that there seemed to be no sense of menace or irony in their version of the symphony’s final movement. I then borrowed a copy of Leonard Bernstein’s New York Philharmonic recording and listened, in vain, for some sense of what the composer himself had referred to as “…joy enforced by threats.” The New York reading was more dramatic than the Czech version, certainly, but I found it far from horrific.

Given the Czech Philharmonic’s legendary reputation for stubbornness, and given that my knowledge of Gardiner was mostly limited to foot-tapping, elegant performances of the basic Baroque repertoire, I arrived at the Smetana Hall completely unprepared for the shattering experience that awaited the Prague Spring festival crowd.
The performance of Dvořák’s disturbing tone poem served as fair warning. Based on a poem by Karol Erben, The Noon Witch uses a tightly compressed four-movement structure to tell the story of a child whose behavior drives her mother to summon a witch to take the child away. It has never been one of my favorite Dvořák pieces, and during the Allegreto introduction, I willingly allowed my attention to wander. There are many eye-catching and attention-grabbing features to the Smetana Hall, but unfortunately, on this evening at least, the orchestra was not one of them. The stage is completely flat, and it is set at such a height relative to the audience that only the front desks are clearly visible. It was possible to see the tops of the bassoons, but the bassoonists themselves were entirely obscured from view. I was distracted from my reverie when the Andante sostenuto e molto tranquillo introduced the specter of the witch into the Hall. From that point on, the orchestra had a complete grip on my imagination, despite the fact that they were playing a piece that, previously, had always prompted me to reach for the skip button on my CD player. There was a palpable sense of excitement and discovery in the way the musicians were responding to Gardiner, and I couldn’t help but feel a faint tingling in the pit of my stomach at the twelve chimes which, on this evening, marked the genuine climax of the story.

The Berlioz song cycle was also a refreshing surprise. I was, frankly, a little disappointed that we weren’t going to hear a world-class instrumental soloist performing one of the great concertos. I have also never been one of the world’s biggest Berlioz fans, nor am I enthralled by the strained crooning and obtrusive vibrato that are often part and parcel of song recitals in Central Europe. In fact, I was approaching Les Nuits as if they were a kind of ordeal that I would have to endure in order to be rewarded by the symphony. Instead, I found myself profoundly moved by Bernarda Fink’s deeply expressive singing. Her voice was silvery and clear, and her facial expressions and body language seemed to stem from an honest identification with the meaning of the songs. Her performance of Absence very nearly broke my heart.

As Gardiner took the podium for the evening’s final performance, there was a sense that something special was about to take place. I recalled reading a CD Now interview with Vladimir Ashkenazy in which he admitted to a sense of frustration over the truculent unresponsiveness of some of the more jaded members of the Czech Philharmonic. I also remembered reading a story in the Prague Post about the frustration and anger of the musicians over the financial situation of the orchestra. (According to the story, dated 30.05.2001, the Prague Philharmonic concertmaster takes home 15 000 Czech crowns per month – about $385 US – compared to the $7,605 US minimum monthly salary reported for the members of the New York Philharmonic). The musicians on stage (the few who were visible) seemed neither truculent nor jaded. Their attention was focused entirely on the conductor, who started them off with a firm, clear downbeat. Immediately, a mood of bleakness was established, from which the strings emerged in a kind of tentative climb, thwarted before reaching its apogee by the relentless marching theme, which built and built to an almost frenzied climax, after which the woodwinds brought back the bleak opening chords. A contrasting mood of vicious sarcasm was then established in the second movement, with the clarinets, bassoons and French horns almost snarling out their themes. The performance of the Largo seemed, subjectively, slower and more searingly intense than the concluding movement of Mahler’s Ninth. It effectively drew all negative emotions to the surface, and one waited impatiently for the triumphant Finale to wash the pain away. The orchestra seemed to begin the final movement very slowly, and, with no obvious accelerando or awkward shifting of gears, one suddenly became aware that they were going at the music hammer and tongs. There was, however, no sense of relief. In fact, the return of the marching theme brought an overwhelming feeling that all of the negative emotions brought forth by the Largo were being brutally rubbed back in. For the first time in my life, I listened to the closing fanfares with a sense of genuine horror.

As the stunned audience, some of whom were weeping openly, filed from the hall, I tried to make sense of what had just happened. The next day, one of my friends asked me if I had enjoyed the concert. I answered honestly that I hadn’t. The Czech Philharmonic Orchestra’s performance of Shostakovich’s Fifth symphony, under the baton of Sir John Elliot Gardiner had not been entertaining or enjoyable. It had, however, been a genuine experience and possibly a great performance, profoundly illustrating the communicative and emotional power of music.

Gordi Whitelaw



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