The Czech National Symphony Orchestra are making regular visits to Britain. They came to Edinburgh last year, and today their two big buses are situated outside the Usher Hall, having brought them all the way from Prague. They are clearly a very well disciplined orchestra, and very familiar with the European repertoire of Schubert, Beethoven and Dvořák they present today to a fairly full Usher Hall.
Their Czech conductor is indisposed, but they are very lucky to have secured young British conductor Ben Palmer as a substitute, and his tall commanding presence on the podium is an important part of the concert. Palmer is totally at home with the music, and gives clear directions to the orchestra, which they respond well to. The orchestra is basically an expanded chamber orchestra of around 50 musicians, with six double bass players, and the usual arrangement of brass, wind and strings.
The concert begins with the familiar melody of Schubert’s Symphony No. 8, known as the “Unfinished”. Quite why Schubert never finished it isn’t agreed by music historians. Perhaps he thought it wasn’t good enough, or perhaps he just forgot about it. He gave the first two movements to a friend, whose drawer it lay in for 40 years, and it wasn’t performed until long after Schubert’s death. Certainly, the first two completed movements deliver lots of melody, and its sudden end after twenty five minutes leaves one wanting more.
The Schubert is followed by the even more familiar sound of Beethoven’s Fourth piano concerto, played by a fine young Russian pianist, Pavel Kolesnikov, who looks like a teenager, but is probably in his late twenties judging by his CV. It is good to see that the great conservatoire tradition of Russia, and in particular Moscow, is continuing to produce great musicians, despite both the breakup of the Soviet Union and Russia’s economic difficulties. Kolesnikov gives a masterly performance, at times seeming to float over the keys, and at others striking them sharply. He is also in total harmony with both the orchestra and the conductor, and the warm response from the audience produces a delicate little encore by Chopin.
After the interval, the orchestra are very much on home territory with Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony, although it feels as if they have perhaps played this work too often: it is a rather pedestrian account. Certainly, the encore is much more spirited, but then it is that great party piece, Smetana’s Dance of the Comedians from the Bartered Bride. All in all, this is a very satisfactory Sunday afternoon concert. Let’s hope that the Czech National Symphony Orchestra make regular visits in future.