Sibelius, Smetana

Back at the Musikverein this morning, for what was billed as a “Czech Matinee” with the Vienna Symphony, with Czech conductor Zdenĕk Mácal on the podium and Czech violinist Jan Pospichal playing the concerto solo.  The programming of Sibelius and Smetana was only half-Czech, however.

Pospichal, soloist for the violin concerto by Sibelius, is the concert master of this orchestra.  This means that, while he is used to working with the Symphoniker, such a pairing also has its drawbacks.  His tone was not robust enough for a concerto – he seemed more concerned with not overwhelming the orchestra, when for a concerto it really should be the other way around.  So his lines did not soar and sometimes got lost in the lush sounds surrounding him.  But he did get a good dialogue going with the rest of the orchestra, particularly when other instruments had contrasting solo lines.

After the intermission came the first three movements of Smetana’s Má Vlast.  The program notes made a point that Má Vlast was merely a collection of tone poems, in order to justify not performing all of them – or even performing them individually.  The Symphoniker has, apparently, only performed all six together twice in its history.  And although it is true that Smetana composed six tone poems, and gave them each individual premieres, he did see them as a group and one wonders why – as long as they were performing more than one anyway – they did not perform the entire set.

Macal clearly found a good level of sympathy with the musicians, although I am not sure I learned anything from his interpretation.  I am also not sure what to make of him – and his history also has some strange turns that suggest that others also don’t either.  He fled the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, and built his career at the helm of middle-tier German orchestras with broad guest conducting engagements with world class orchestras on both sides of the Pond.  Then he languished inexplicably with the reputationless New Jersey Symphony Orchestra in the 1990s, before returning triumphantly to Prague to head the Czech Philharmonic in 2003, a post he suddenly and inexplicably resigned from in 2007.

Still, the Symphoniker continues to sound good, particularly its woodwinds, no matter who is standing on the bump.


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