sat 02/07/2022

CBSO Chorus, Czech Philharmonic, Bychkov, Barbican review - a mass of life | reviews, news & interviews

CBSO Chorus, Czech Philharmonic, Bychkov, Barbican review - a mass of life

CBSO Chorus, Czech Philharmonic, Bychkov, Barbican review - a mass of life

Impossible to imagine more nuanced, dazzling performances of Dvořák and Janáček

Semyo Bychkov, the Czech Philharmonic, CBSO Chorus and soloists (left to right) Lucie Hislcherová (alto), Evelina Dobraceva (soprano), Daniela Valtová Kosinová (organist), Aleš Briscein (tenor) and Boris Prýgl (bass)All images by Petr Kadlec

One of the world’s top five orchestras – sorry, but I locate them all in continental Europe – played on the second night of its London visit to a half-empty Barbican Hall. Half-full, rather, attentive and ecstatic. As for the much-criticised venue, which I’ve always been able to live with, playing as fine as this shows that you don’t need a state-of-the-art auditorium to make the most beautiful sounds.

Under the masterly hands of Semyon Bychkov, there were depths and perspectives in defiance of the acoustics. They were there right at the start in the noblest possible performance of the Ukrainian National Anthem, to which the Czechs have possibly the greatest claim outside that brave, beleaguered country since the film of their Rudolfinum performance, with choir, alongside their own proud strains was the first to hit the internet after the invasion began. I posted it in the essential piece on how orchestras, conductors and soloists are standing with Ukraine, but here it is again.

Bychkov spoke eloquently, as he always does, of our admiration and horror, and declared this “a celebration of life” – as indeed was the previous night’s performance of Smetana’s Má vlast, so fervently welcomed here by Boyd Tonkin, but there are big battles to be won before the last of the six tone-poems wins through to joy. Conflict wasn’t absent in this programme either. Janáček in his Glagolitic Mass takes us through the anguish of wanting to believe, the horrors leading up to the Crucifixion and the mystery of the “Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world”. Dvořák briefly batters or mystifies some of his happiest themes in the Eighth Symphony, and lets us weep bittersweet tears in the third-movement slow waltz.

Otherwise, though, it’s bliss all the way. I can’t think of an interpretation quite like Bychkov’s Dvořák 8 where everything was so perfect that you questioned nothing, marvelling at the flow and the colours. He used to be a conductor more of earth and fire than air, preferring heavier tempi, which is how he began with the Czech Philharmonic in Ma vlast when I heard their first performance of it together in Prague. But that’s shifted, and the Dvorak tended to the swift, seamlessly pouring forth the cornucopia of ideas with the most perfect of orchestral solos along the way – flute, horn, cor anglais, violin, trumpet. Bychkov conducting the Czech Philharmonic at the BarbicanThe mists of the Adagio, of which teasingly archaic-sounding clarinets were so much a part, lifted to make the rising-scale theme of pure rapture seem more remarkable than I’ve ever heard it each time. And the strings, chameleonic from wild rumpus to reverie in the finale, couldn’t be outshone by their counterparts in Berlin, Amsterdam or Vienna.

Time was when the Czech Phil used to give us late-romantic Janáček without the jagged edges, in contrast to the orchestras of Brno, the composer’s home city. That changed when Charles Mackerras came along. With Bychkov, we get the best of both worlds in the stupendous, poleaxing Glagolitic Mass: the Bohemian warmth and richness when needed, but also the revelation of the sudden, violent gesture, the clear rhythmic oddities, the abrupt cut-offs. Organist in Glagolitic MassI hope Bychkov was pleased with the commitment of the City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus, always impeccably prepared by Simon Halsey with invaluable input, I'm told, by Julian Wilkins and Lada Valesova; what a shame their home city couldn’t be host to this programme. One had to put aside thoughts of how this would have sounded in Symphony Hall, with its proper king of instruments as well as air around the sound, and be satisfied that Daniela Valtová Kosinová (pictured above) delivered the dizzying organ solo towards the end with breathing rubato on a modest onstage instrument fed through louspeakers. It was ideal, and in Aleš Briscein we even had a tenor able to deliver the insanely high clarion trumpet calls which lead the chorus to pulsating heights. The other one of the four soloists who gets a chance to shine, soprano Evelina Dobraceva, was a model of attentive devotion; and what a joy to see the players when not busy at work really enjoying their colleagues' work. As for the final brass-capped processional, the real trumpets also delivered their top notes to perfection at the centre of magnesium-flare brilliance. The sound is still resonating the morning after.

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