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Czech National Symphony Orchestra 14 May 2024 (Susan Elkin reviews)

Czech National Symphony Orchestra

Fairfield Halls

14 May 2024

Hearing a Czech orchestra playing the Valtva section of Smetana’s Ma Vlast is a bit like hearing the Vienna Philharmonic play Strauss waltzes or the BBC Symphony Orchestra play Henry Wood’s Sea Songs – it’s in the blood. So this performance flowed cheerfully like the river it depicts with the timp more prominent than sometimes. It was, however, a bit staid, possibly because of the frequency with which CNSO has to play it,

The stage at Fairfield Halls is tight for a full orchestra and there had to be some adjustment at the back of the first violins to get Choloe Hanslip on stage and for each of her audience calls at the end of her performance. Nonetheless, once she was installed at the front, her aide-memoire iPad on a stand, we were into Bruch’s first violin concerto. She used so much rubato and glissando in her opening statement and leant on the semi-tones so emphatically that it sounded, for a moment, like Klezmer and later I had to check whether Bruch was Jewish. (He wasn’t).

An interesting interpretation, it made a strong dramatic entrée into one of the most popular works in the “classical” repertoire.  Hanslip had plenty of rapport with the orchestra – almost dancing as if she should have been conducting – during the orchestral passages. I liked the segue into the adagio which she played with pleasing warmth and the duet with the horn was delightful. The impressive technical acrobatics in the finale were, indeed, energico as Bruch specifies.  Goodness knows how she gets that mellow tone so far up the instrument. And Steven Mercurio ensured that the interspersed, lush, fortissimo passages rang out richly. All in all it was a pretty decent performance of an audience favourite. And her encore –  Massanet’s Meditation gave us the requisite soupy lyricism played with panache and adeptly accompanied, especially by the harp.

Now, Dvorak’s 8th is a symphony for which I have a very soft spot having first encountered and played it in the Lewisham Philharmonic (yes, really!) 54 years ago. Of course I’ve played it again since and have heard it performed many dozens of times over the years. And it never palls.

On this occasion all Dvorak’s melodious mood changes were played with character. Highlights included the double bass pizzicato and later decorative flute work in the opening movement. The odd wrong note and occasional loss of impetus were very minor blips. I also enjoyed the pleasingly rich string sound before the rippling tune (later reversed) in the adagio and the nice lilting quality of the allegretto. My favourite moment, though, is the rhythmic, minor key wind entry in the fourth movement about eight minutes before the end – and it made me beam as usual. Moreover, the opening trumpet fanfare was neatly precise and the gallop down the last page with the big rallentando was as uplifting as it should be.

Mercurio, an American who is CNSO’s current Music Director, is a happy, relaxed looking conductor who beats time in a business-like way with lots of smiles. At the end of the symphony he spun round to face the audience with a flourish on the last chord. When the applause had died down, he said “Well that was fun!” before introducing Dvorak’s Slavonic Dance number 15 as the encore and then delivering it with much slavic colour and brio.


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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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