The challenges of heading west

The Czech Philharmonic needs more discipline. Can Vladimir Ashkenazy provide it? By Michael Church
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The Independent Culture

When is an orchestra not an orchestra? When it's the City of Prague Philharmonic. This venerable-sounding band's existence was recently called into question by the managing director of London's Royal Philharmonic. Not only was it a fly-by-night enterprise, but it was also stealing the RPO's film contracts by undercutting their fees by a factor of ten. Outrage!

When is an orchestra not an orchestra? When it's the City of Prague Philharmonic. This venerable-sounding band's existence was recently called into question by the managing director of London's Royal Philharmonic. Not only was it a fly-by-night enterprise, but it was also stealing the RPO's film contracts by undercutting their fees by a factor of ten. Outrage!

But if you listen to their soundtrack recordings, you'll probably agree that the CPP are rather good. Producer James Fitzpatrick, who has made 80 CDs with them for the Silva Screen label, compares them to the Hallé: "They have the same dry wit and sense of humour, especially the percussion, and especially when the vodka's going round." And who are they exactly? "A pick-up band consisting of the best players to be found in Prague at any given time."

So what, then, is the Czech Philharmonic, which is about to begin a British tour? A very different matter. Ever since Dvorak conducted it in 1896, this orchestra has been regarded by Czechs as the jewel in their musical crown. And when I ask Hannah Gaifman, one of the Czech Phil's directors, what she thinks of the City of Prague Philharmonic, I get a crushing reply: "It doesn't exist. There's no such thing." Yet according to James Fitzpatrick, the CPP is largely composed of moonlighting Czech Phil players. No wonder it's so good: it's the Czech Phil in disguise.

These are hard times for Prague's musical elite. "They were a privileged group under Communism," says Gaifman, "but now they're a schizophrenic organisation." Once they were entirely state-supported: now they must also scratch about for sponsorship. But if they do this too successfully, the state reduces its subsidy in proportion, so they're locked into relative penury. With average salaries of £230 per month, they work for Silva Screen whenever they can, since Fitzpatrick pays them a mouth-watering £35 per session.

Artistically, moreover, they've been having a terrible time. Generally agreed to have slid into complacency in the latter years of Communism, they hired the dynamic conductor Jiri Belohlavek as a tonic. Not liking what he told them ­ that if they wanted to be world-class again they would have to pull their socks up ­ they sacked him. High on the excitement of post-Communist "democracy" ­ and obsessed with the notion that a Westerner would solve all their problems ­ they then hired a third-rate German, who proved disastrous. When Vladimir Ashkenazy took over the helm two years ago, they felt the tide had turned.

Not quite yet, perhaps. According to Graham Melville-Mason, a British musicologist teaching at Prague University, the Czech Phil hasn't recovered its former glory. "They still have a complacent attitude, fostered by the fact that they have jobs for life ­ in contrast to Western bands, whose players are constantly monitored by management and colleagues. The Czech Phil players protect each other, and carry passengers. They have some very fine musicians, but the weakness is in the violins. This is ironic, given that the Czech string-quartet tradition is still so strong." Prague's newer orchestras, he says, frequently outplay their senior band.

Ashkenazy himself, when taxed with the complacency question, gives a careful reply. "We are very good friends. When I want something better done, they do it again, and I always get what I want. They want to be told when things aren't right. They're very versatile, and the winds are wonderful." He's more forthcoming on what the post-Communism gear-change has meant in psychological terms. "It's a question of mentality. All the old priorities have been turned upside down. Life is hard for them now ­ they don't know where they belong ­ so they take refuge in routine. They don't feel treasured by the government. They would deny it if you asked them, but there's a feeling of loss."

He's currently trying to persuade Prague's politicians to let the orchestra spend its meagre budget as it chooses, and buy in management talent ­ and soloists ­ from abroad. He admits there's a danger that the best players now emerging from the Czech Republic's still-superb music schools will go west to Germany.

Ashkenazy, who lives in Switzerland, is a rich man, and has long been in the habit of digging into his pocket to help artists in need. Using money from his own private foundation, he recently bought two much-needed horns for the cash-strapped Prague conservatory; he's just put a young clarinettist through college in Rome, and a Russian painter through art-school in Edinburgh. "I haven't seen him for years ­ I just give him the money. I'm happy to help." Still grateful for the tuition he received in Moscow, he periodically plays there for free, as he does in Estonia. His original plans for the Czech Phil included getting them a contract with Decca, but that label's parlous situation now makes such things unthinkable. Meanwhile his own CDs keep pouring out, and every one a winner. He vetoed the original choice of recordings which Philips had made for his volume in the Great Pianists of the 20th Century series ­ "It was arbitrary and superficial" ­ so we now have his own selection, including Borodin, Prokofiev, and Rachmaninov's majestic Variations on a theme by Corelli. Decca have reissued his Kreutzer with Itzhak Perlman, as well as releasing his Chopin Waltzes and Scherzos, his amazing Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues and, this month, Tchaikovsky's The Seasons ­ whereon hangs a tale.

"Michael Cacoyannis [director of Zorba the Greek] came backstage after a recital in Athens and asked if I would play something which might make the leitmotiv for a film he was making of The Cherry Orchard, so I sat down and played Tchaikovsky's Meditation. He liked it and asked for more, so I sent him a tape, which formed the basis for the soundtrack which Decca has now released. I even offered to be his music director, because I think I know what the Russian aristocracy would have listened to at that time. I love Chekhov's economy and understatement ­ and his fine understanding of the workings of the Russian soul."

But he has no plans to return home. Russia, he fears, may be blighted forever.

 

The Czech Philharmonic is in Birmingham, Sun; Glasgow Mon; Barbican, London, Tues; and Manchester, Wed

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