Review: Prague Symphony Orchestra

A couple of Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances rounded off a resoundingly successful concert at the City Hall from the Prague orchestra which, on this showing, is eminently capable of giving the more famous Czech Philharmonic a run for its money.

The orchestral balance with a palette of colourful nuances was superb with highly skilled and rounded playing in all instrumental departments.

Smetana’s bloodthirsty Šárka, the shortest of his six Má Vlast symphonic tone poems, made for an exciting opening and Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony, a magnificently triumphant ending – the two Slavonic Dances, well known ones from the Op 72 and Op 46 sets, respectively, and played as encores notwithstanding.

Both were yet proof again that only Czech orchestras can only truly do justice to the music of their native land. The reason is something that defies defining. Whatever it is, you could ‘see’ the pictures the symphony was painting.

Chloë Hanslip came up with a Beethoven Violin Concerto with a difference in between, playing the whole of the first movement in her instrument’s high register, often with the greatest delicacy of projection and, amazingly, remaining just about audible in the most feather-light instances.

In the same frame of mind in second movement, it was saved from becoming rather monotonous by the sheer artistry of her playing and the orchestra’s recently appointed Finnish music director Pietari Inkenen being entirely happy to be on her wavelength with fabulous orchestral support, not least some beautifully subtle bassoon playing.

 

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Revolts and Warrior Maidens

Everyone, perhaps, knows Vltava, the second and most often heard separately of the six nationalistic symphonic poems that make up Smetana’s Má vlast – My homeland, but what about the one that follows it, Šárka?

Sounds a bit scary, you say. She was!

A female warrior in Bohemian legend, she first appears in 12th century Czech literature in connection with The Maidens’ War which was ignited by the actions of Přemysl, the husband of Libuše after her death.

Libuše, the successor of one, Krok, who had ruled over most of Bohemia, was the fabled foundress of Prague – she was also the subject of a superb grand Festive Opera by Smetana!

However, one of her chambermaids, Vlasta, took exception to Přemysl’s decrees and led a revolt of women against him, which is where Smetana’s scenario takes up the story.

Šárka, a close confidant of Vlasta, had herself tied to a tree to trap a band of armed men led by Ctirad. She claims that rebel maidens tied her to the tree when they find her and placed a jug of mead and a horn out of reach to taunt her.

Ctirad instantly falls in love with her and she pours the mead as a thank-you to the men who drink it unaware that it is drugged. When they are out to the world, Šárka blows the horn and the maidens come out of hiding to join her in killing the men.

Smetana, the founding father of Czech nationalism in music, not Dvořák as some say, wrote the symphonic poems between 1874 (Šárka in 1875) and 1879 against a growing background of nationalist awareness and desire to rid Bohemia of its pervasive German dominance.

They succeeded, only to be invaded by the same country in 1938 and Prague occupied by Nazis from March 1939 – cue the astonishing patriotic resonance of Má vlast!

On the 5th of June that year, the legendary Václav Talich conducted the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra in a live broadcast performance from the Prague National Theatre of Smetana’s cycle.

The audience greeted each tone poem with a rapturous, shouting ovation and then burst into singing the Czech National anthem at the end!

Another great Czech conductor, Rafael Kubelik left Prague and the country for good in 1948 when the Soviet Union moved in.

An ailing, semi-retired Kubelik returned 42 years later following the ‘Velvet Revolution’ to open the 1990 Prague Festival on the 12th of May with the Czech Philharmonic.

Do you need telling what it was he conducted!?

 

Smetana’s Šárka from Má vlast is performed by the Prague Symphony Orchestra at the City Hall this coming Thursday.

 

‘The Swedish Mozart’

Giovanni Battista Serini and Joseph Martin Kraus, both with symphonies being performed by the Sheffield University Chamber Orchestra at Firth Hall this coming Sunday, are a couple names to conjure with.

Kraus, the ‘Swedish Mozart’ as he has been christened, is the better known of the two – just, because Serini is all but forgotten!

The allusion to Mozart is coincidence. Kraus was born in the same year and died the year after him. He wasn’t strictly Swedish either! He was born in Germany and talked into going to Stockholm at age of 21.

Three years later he attracted the attention of the arts-loving Gustav III, who would later be immortalised in Verdi’s opera Un Ballo in Maschera: A Masked Ball, at which he was assassinated in 1792!

Kraus began ailing soon after and died from tuberculosis in December 1792, the same month as Mozart a year earlier. The epitaph on his tombstone just outside Stockholm reads: Here the earthly of Kraus; the heavenly lives in his music.

There are indications that the shade and music of the composer of over 200 works may be re-emerging as “an outstanding figure of the Classical period” into the limelight.

Gustav thought so highly of him, he financed a four-year educational tour of Europe for him. On it, at Eszterháza in 1783, he met Haydn and wrote a symphony for him, causing the older composer to prophesy that it would be “regarded as a masterpiece for centuries to come.”

Very much in the Sturm und Drang mode Kraus was so fond of, Haydn’s prediction hasn’t quite worked out – maybe those centuries are still to come! In the meantime, you can hear the symphony, in C minor, this Sunday.

It may leave you pondering over the fact that Kraus has baker’s dozen of other symphonies to his name, with at least seven lost, plus five operas, 16 string quartets and a groundbreaking flute quintet (1784), among other things.

The life, times and music of Giovanni Battista Serini remain to be documented, if ever!

It is not known when he born: 1710-15 is the best guess, or when he died – except that it was after 1765! It is known he came into this world in Cremona and that his family were a thoroughly musical lot.

Maybe as early as 1714, he ended up in Venice where he became a pupil of Galuppi at some point and, in all likelihood, it was he who got him a post in service to Robert D’Arcy, IV Earl of Holderness, here in Yorkshire, and English ambassador to Venice between 1744 and 1746.

This is where some slightly confused facts come into the Serini story thanks to a dedication, dated the 15th of June 1755, which accompanied a portfolio of autographed manuscripts he sent to D’Arcy – “commanded from me by you,” and are preserved at York Minster.

The dedication also appeared in some sort of Venetian census or other in 1750 the same year, almost certainly through D’Arcy, he obtained a prestigious post as court composer to a certain Count Wilhelm Schaumburg-Lippe at Bückeberg in Germany.

He mentions five rewarding years spent there in the 1755 dedication, which came to an end that year with the outbreak of the Seven Years’ War. The last we hear of him is in a letter he sent with some scores to the Count from Bonn in early 1765.

It seems the library at Bückeburg had preserved about 24 sinfonias, numerous pieces of chamber music, intermezzi, cantatas, motets, various sacred and secular works by Serini, but all were is at least partially lost in the Second World War.

The two sinfonias by Serini, No’s 1 and 2 in their first modern performance at Firth Hall on Sunday, are described as newly rediscovered – at York Minster perhaps, the largest extant corpus of the composer’s works?

It contains six sinfonias, but some are said to exist in manuscript elsewhere, such as in Venice and Paris.