Proms: As Mahler would have it

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THEY WERE last at the Proms in 1969 (shame), but the good news is that the Czech Philharmonic still sounds like the Czech Philharmonic. Which is something of a miracle given the turbulent times that this nation has lived through, given the irresistible pressure in this shrinking world to be bigger and better than your competitors. Size - as in body and depth of sonority - matters, or so it would seem. A question of national pride. When a delegation of brass players from an orchestra as good, as individual, as this one can approach a well-known American conductor (and this is true) asking how they can sound more like the Chicago Symphony, you begin to realise just how irresistible that pressure is.

But the Czech Philharmonic have resisted. They remain unglamorised, unsanitised, unpasteurised, unspoiled. A little aural adjustment is required (remember this season has fielded a handful of the world's heavyweights), but that is easily made. Certainly there were times in Sir Charles Mackerras' quite splendid account of Mahler's First Symphony where our "modern" Mahler conditioning craved more: more reach in the strings, more resonance in the brass, more heft in the horns - more volume. The "Titan" of the symphony's subtitle strode proudly but not indomitably to his well-earned triumph. You began to see, or rather hear, why Mahler requested his horns to stand at the close - not just as a visual effect, a moment of theatre, but because the horn sound would have been smaller and rounder then and would otherwise have been swallowed in the orchestral melee.

In fact, listening to this performance was a little like turning the clock back to Mahler's day: the naturalness of the expression, the earthiness of the colours, the very real sense of an orchestra striving beyond the limitations of the instruments in hand. Mackerras, a great stylist, knows about such things. Phrasings and rubatos sounded inbred, carefree, casual in the best sense of the word. We were back in Bohemia, the source of Mahler's natural world, all charm and mystery. Dawn broke magically, a whisper away from silence, on this the first day of the rest of his life. In the stop-and-listen middle section of the first movement cellos etched in fragile glissandi whose eeriness was like every forest murmur you've ever heard and not been able to explain. And all around were the singers and their songs, the local bands touting their quirkily homespun routines. Mackerras made the scherzo's trio sound particularly homely, while reedy woodwinds and sour trumpets duly strutted their stuff in the bizarre and grotesque parodies of the third movement's funeral procession. A huntsman's funeral with the cast of Janacek's The Cunning Little Vixen as chief mourners.

Mackerras had earlier offered Vaclav Talich's two-part suite from that opera - a fitting endorsement of his Czech credentials (to say nothing of his authority as a world-renowned Janacek specialist), since Talich had been his teacher. So more animal magic, more pastures green, but in Janacek's distinctive hues and in a performance as bright-eyed and quick- witted as its bushy-tailed heroine. Again it was the friendly persuasion, the honesty, of the playing that was so winning. I've heard more spectacular performances of Janacek's orchestral rhapsody Taras Bulba, but few as naturally in touch with the feeling behind its strangely unorthodox timbres. Which unfortunately included a nasty muddy-bassed electronic organ. Standard orchestral pitch being higher in other parts of Europe meant that the great Albert Hall organ sat redundant as gruff Czech brass rose above the tintinnabulations to proclaim Taras Bulba's prophecy. No matter, an evening of tangibly real music-making.