A clash of symbols

Nationalism has cast a cloud over the Czech Philharmonic's centenary celebrations.
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The Independent Culture
One hundred years ago, on 4 January 1896, Antonin Dvorak conducted the first concert by the Czech Philharmonic in the Prague Rudolfinum, a magnificent neo-Renaissance building on the bank of the Vltava. To mark its centenary, the CPO had planned to present the same programme in a series of four concerts conducted by a quartet of former and current Chief Conductors - Rafael Kubelik, Vaclav Neumann, Jiri Belohlavek and Gerd Albrecht. In the event, Kubelik was too ill to attend and Neumann died last September, so the concerts were divided between Belohlavek (Chief Conductor 1990-1992) and Albrecht, the current incumbent.

It was Albrecht who, at a press conference held in the Rudolfinum the day before, observed, "The Vienna Philharmonic and the Berlin Philharmonic are a symbol of their respective countries; the Czech Philharmonic is the national symbol" - which makes his appointment as the first German conductor in the CPO's 100-year history inherently contentious. It doesn't help that he makes no efforts to speak Czech.

The day after, the Czech press was full of it: had Albrecht violated his "gentleman's agreement" with the Minister of Culture not to mention "Czech chauvinism" during the centenary season? Had he had "personally invited" or merely "permitted" Jiri Belohlavek to co-conduct the concerts? And why were neither President Vaclav Havel nor Prime Minister Klaus planning to attend?

The last straw seemed to be the involvement of the American-sounding but Japanese-owned "Pony Canyon" record label: its exclusive five-year contract with the CPO to record Dvorak's Ninth may well prevent the Czech company Supraphon from crowning its own celebratory "l00 + l" CD series - comprising re-issues of all the CPO's recordings since Vaclav Talich's 1896 Ma Vlast - with a recording of the centenary concert itself. To make matters worse, no one seems able to find Pony Canyon CDs in Prague record shops.

All those I spoke to were emphatic that the "problem" with Albrecht was not one of nationality - they had been more than happy to work with conductors like Bohm or Sawallisch - but Albrecht's attempt to take over the CPO's administration as well as its artistic direction. As it is, following the mass resignation of the Board of Directors last June, he now runs the whole show.

On centenary night, however, Albrecht allowed Belohlavek to open proceedings with Dvorak's Slavonic Rhapsody in A flat major, a nationally tinted piece closely related to the style of the Slavonic Dances. The CPO's gorgeous string sound was much in evidence here, the polka rhythms real toe-tapping stuff. Next came the Biblical Songs of 1894, a product of Dvorak's American years, in which the mezzo-soprano Dagmar Peckova showed off her wonderful vocal palette as well as the changing moods of the psalm texts. Belohlavek's sensitive direction was perfect for these epigrammatic works.

After the interval, Albrecht's agitated conducting style worked well for the Othello Overture, with its extreme emotions, but the New World symphony came off less successfully: although the orchestra demonstrated its usual technical perfection (one felt they could almost play the piece with their eyes closed), I missed the lilt and sheer musicality of, for example, Neumann's definitive 1972 reading - the fast movements especially tended to sound rushed. The cor anglais solo in the Largo was most affecting and perhaps only this orchestra could play the great cross-rhythms (Red Indian or Slav?) of the Scherzo quite like this. Let's hope that it can preserve its special qualities for another 100 years.