Czech Philharmonic Orchestra in National Concert Hall on 17 & 18 February 2018

The National Concert Hall’s International Concert Series has had some real successes this year, and this weekend looks set to extend that even further with the arrival of the legendary Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. Marking the centenary of Czech and Slovak independence with a tour devoted to bringing audiences essential works of the Czech canon, this tour has already set hearts racing. In Dublin for a full weekend, with two evening performances and a family concert on Sunday afternoon, it’s a busy schedule we don’t often see from touring ensembles.

Arriving in the auditorium, it’s hard not to be struck by the sheer number of chairs and music stands at the ready on stage: this is no small touring outfit. With an ensemble nearing 100, the Czech Philharmonic is a larger orchestra than we’re used to seeing in the concert hall, easily dwarfing our own RTÉ NSO. Conductor Tomás Netopil takes charge and the opening pieces—a pair of Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances—reveal a rich, deeply-edged sound. The presence of the double-basses, placed in a row along the back rather than bunched in a group to one side, lends a superb depth to the ensemble’s tone as they begin to play, vividly contrasting with the brilliant sheen of the upper strings. There is a real sense that we are witnessing an ensemble that just doesn’t do routine. The playing projects a calm engagement with the music, always poised and focused, with excellent colours coming from each section.

After the Brahmsian sweep of the dances, the orchestra is joined by soloist Alisa Weilerstein to play the Dvorak Cello Concerto. A work that’s always a crowd-pleaser, tonight the orchestra shines a rich sound-world of romantic fantasy through this music. There are many telling details: the ravishing horn solo at the opening, the thrilling intensity of the finale, and most of all the boldly romantic sound that Weilerstein brings throughout, matching the orchestra’s commitment with a flair all her own.

Another favourite, Dvorak’s Ninth Symphony, ‘From the New World’, concludes the Saturday concert. Again there is a gorgeous sweep of sound from the orchestra, rich but never indulgent, the brilliant attack underscoring a real sense of rugged earthiness. The famous ‘Going Home’ melody in the Largo movement is introduced beautifully, the cor anglais solo exquisitely played. As the work proceeds, the mood, and the wit, of the playing comes through, with the finale’s resolution suggesting a real sense of return and fiery resolution. It is playing from the heart.

The following evening brings Smetana’s patriotic cycle of short tone poems ‘Má vlast’ (My Country), a work with which this orchestra has been long associated. The President is with us tonight, and so the concert opens with a stately rendition of ‘Amhrán na bhFiann’, its harmonies sounding freshly crisp and precise in Czech hands. The work that follows allows the orchestra to explore a denser sound than before, deeply woven and integrated. The fourth poem, ‘From Bohemia’s Meadows and Groves’ comes through as the core of the piece, the silvery string tone gleaming through the top of a rich texture. It’s a real privilege to hear and see playing like this, committed and true.

The applause, on both nights, is long and grateful. Coming just a day after the 70th anniversary of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra—lately in the news for all the wrong reasons—one can’t help wonder how a country with an apparently smaller economy than our own can support so many more professional ensembles, including this one. Where did we go wrong?

Programme 1: Dvorák: Two Slavonic Dances (Nos. 6 & 8, from Op. 72); Cello Concerto in B minor; Symphony No. 9 in E minor

Programme 2: Smetana: Má vlast

Images supplied by National Concert Hall