Review: Prague Symphony at Smetana Hall
By Perry Tannenbaum
Sitting in our room at the Brewery Hotel on our last night in the Old City – after attending performances at the Estates Theatre, the Rudolfinum, and the Municipal House in the space of four evenings – I couldn’t help but reflect on how beer and classical music must run through the veins of Prague’s natives and people who visit the Czech capital. On our way to the Estates, where we saw the National Theatre Opera’s Don Giovanni in the very same hall where Mozart first conducted it, a gauntlet of pubs lined a narrow street, serving up an assortment of brews, including what is fiercely claimed to be the genuine Budweiser. A brewery and a restaurant are still a part of the hotel where we lodged, and we could have ordered beer-flavored ice cream until late at night.
Nor were our musical choices limited to the three programs we saw. On the night that we saw Pinchas Zukerman and Amanda Forsyth play the Brahms Double Concerto, we had to reject the National’s La Traviata because we were flying out the next morning. Two festivals were in full swing during our stay in Prague, the Young Prague International and the star-studded Dvořák Prague International, which offered five of its 16 events during our five-day sojourn. If that weren’t enough, the Church of Nicholas in the Old Town offers two concerts every day, including a handy 5pm event on the day we strolled by.
Aside from the National, the Czech Philharmonic and the Prague Symphony are the kingpins of the classical scene, though the Prague Philharmonia and the Czech Radio Symphony – both of which appeared at the Dvořák International – cannot be discounted. The Czech Philharmonic sports the more experienced maestro, Semyon Bychkov, and plays at the more euphonious Dvořák Hall at the Rudolfinum, but with violinist-conductor Pietari Inkinen on their podium in Smetana Hall at the Municipal, the Prague can lay claim to the hotter property.
Inkinen also holds chief conductorships at the Japan Philharmonic and Deutsche Radio Philharmonie, and he is slated to conduct the new Wagner Ring next summer at Bayreuth. The 39-year-old Finn also has an affinity for the symphonic works of Jean Sibelius, having recorded complete cycles of the seven symphonies with both the New Zealand Symphony and Japan Phil. So I was just as eager to hear Inkinen and the Prague in the Sibelius 5 as I was to hear Zukerman and Forsyth do their glamorous Double.
Before their mighty husband-and-wife fireworks, Zukerman and Forsyth ingratiated themselves individually with two Dvořák gems, the violinist leading off with the Romance for Violin and the cellist following with Silent Woods. Neither posed the severe technical challenges you expect a featured guest artist to conquer, yet they both offered charming opportunities for expressiveness, proving they deserve to be heard live, not just on CDs or FM radio.
Though we needed to lean forward in the balcony at the Rudolfinum to get a full view of Gautier Capuçon when he played Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations the previous evening, the acoustics had been fabulous. At the Smetana, you needed to be at ground level if you wished to be enraptured by the sound of the soloists. The hall was kinder to Forsyth’s cello than it was to Zukerman as she floated through the dark orchestral shades of the orchestral setting, but the full sweetness of Dvořák’s woodwind writing never came close to full bloom.
The Brahms was a better match for the venue, though Zukerman couldn’t break through in the opening Allegro with all the fiery immediacy you hear on the couple’s 2015 Analekta recording. We finally reached a higher plateau when Forsyth launched the middle Andante with a tone that the hall caressed – and Inkinen was able to draw the cohesive support from the Prague ensemble that he hadn’t mustered before. Chemistry between Zukerman and Forsyth, calmed and mellowed here, became sprightly and mischievous in the concluding Vivace non troppo now that the violinist had adjusted to the room. The double-bowed exchanges between the soloists were at the highest level as the concerto climaxed.
If the initial Dvořák pieces had been cagily chosen to showcase the guest soloists without stressfully testing the power couple, the encore was deftly selected to underscore Forsyth’s charm and Zukerman’s chivalry. The violinist gave way here, and it was Inkinen who picked up his violin and, sitting deferentially behind Forsyth, played a brief pizzicato duet with the cellist. A glamorous coda, as Inkinen and Forsyth shared a chaste smooch and Zukerman stood off proudly clutching a bouquet of flowers.
Inkinen and the Prague struggled a little with the Smetana’s sonics in the Sibelius 5. Strings sounded a bit watery early in the opening movement, but their sound solidified later on. Pizzicatos weren’t ideally delicate to start the middle movement, but the bowed violins sweetened when they ascended the treble, and the reprise of the pizzicatos was notably improved. Flutes could sound dry or echoey at times in the opening movement, but the doubled flutes in the middle movement floated beatifically.
Fortunately, the hall is far more welcoming to trumpets, trombones, and oboes. The brass were unfailingly dramatic each time they were called upon and the principal trumpet was magnificent. Everything coalesced satisfyingly in the final movement, where the woodwinds were the first to impress. The alchemy between the flutes and the stealthy violins was nicely measured, and the roused violins had convincing ardor. As we neared the climax, the principal trombone excelled – the only non-string musician I could actually see clearly from ground level. To use a gymnastics phrase that is so apt for the end of this E-flat powerhouse, where timpani and brass mete out a string of sforzandos, Inkinen and the Prague’s big guns stuck the landing.