magnificent ensemble held a packed house under its spell

International tours were one of the first casualties of Covid, so having such a special visitor as the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra back in town added an extra shot of slivovitz to the sold-out Barbican atmosphere.

The mission of the orchestra for the first of its two concerts in London was to present to us the cycle of symphonic poems in six movements by Bedrich Smetana, My Vlast (My homeland), in its entirety.

A blingful curtain-raiser came first: Yuja Wang’s account of Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 1. His powerful pianism sometimes set so many diamonds that he almost hid the ring; but when the gold shone in the filigree decorations of the slow movement, it was a suitably high carat.

Meanwhile, it only took a few seconds for the full house to fall under the spell of the enveloping black velvet sound of this orchestra.

Yuja Wang’s recital of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 1 was a searing curtain-raiser (Photo: Petr Kadlec)

The real deal came after intermission, when their bandleader and musical director, Semyon Bychkov, dedicated My Vlast to the Ukrainian people and prefigured it with the Ukrainian national anthem.

The Czech Philharmonic Orchestra – which gave its first concert under this name in 1896, under the direction of Antonin Dvorák – comes from a country that knows what it means to be crushed by Russia; and Bychkov, of Russian descent, was one of many Soviet musicians to “defect” to the west whenever they could. Perhaps this time, Smetana’s proud and poetic musical canvases embraced a broader spirit than ever before.

The work is full of legends and landscapes, arising from the undulating harps like bards of Vysehrad (Le Haut Château), across the great river Vltavaa celebration of the female warrior Sarka and the idealized visions of Bohemian woods and fields. There’s what feels like a battle raging in Tambourine and a final triumph in the last pages of Blanik.

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It’s not often that an orchestra and a piece of music seem so inseparable. They played as if they owned all the notes – which they do, in a way. The technical magnificence of the strings is rooted in the Czech tradition of the game, long renowned for its finesse and eloquence (the majority of players are indeed Czech); and as a whole, the substantial whole breathed wonderfully as a single unit.

Bychkov is less a great maestro than a friend and colleague of his musicians. Together they traveled many more miles, sometimes dropping a diminuendo to the last degree possible, other times using a crescendo not just to get stronger, but to build up fierce power.

This blend of such a genuinely minded orchestra and a conductor of real integrity proved to be a powerful blend.

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