PRAGUE ORCHESTRA PLAYS PROSAIC BEETHOVEN
By Lawrence Budmen
The music of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) has long been considered indestructible. Beethoven's compositional mastery produced symphonies, concertos, and chamber music that are virtually performance proof. That theory was put to the test when the Concert Association of Florida presented the Prague Symphony Orchestra in an all Beethoven program on January 25 at the Jackie Gleason Theater in Miami Beach.
The Prague ensemble has a distinguished seven decade history of music making in the capital of the Czech Republic. This orchestra was once considered one of Europe's finest ensembles - surpassed in its native land only by the superb Czech Philharmonic. When the Prague Symphony made its first Miami appearance two decades ago, its music director was the young Czech maestro Jiri Belohlavek. Conductor and orchestra gave intense, splendidly idiomatic performances of music by Smetana and Tchaikovsky. (Belohlavek has since become an international podium star. Recently he received great acclaim for performances of Leos Janacek's "Jenufa" at New York's Metropolitan Opera and Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde" at England's Glyndebourne Festival.) When the orchestra returned to South Florida a decade ago, its conductor was Per Altrichter who led blatant performances of Russian works by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff; however he could not dampen the orchestra's joyous Czech spirit in Dvorak's Sixth Symphony. That music is in the ensemble's musical bloodstream.
With Altrichter still at the orchestra's helm, the Beethoven concert proved mostly distressing. This once sonorous ensemble now sounds dim and listless. The string tone was often wiry; the wind playing sour and inaccurate; the brass sound was coarse and raucous. Indeed disaster was barely averted at the concert's outset. While the strings played the noble second subject of Beethoven's "Coriolan Overture," Opus 62 with considerable majesty, the work's central section found the orchestra not playing in unison and the performance threatened to disintegrate. Altrichter managed to pull the musicians together but the poor ensemble playing ruined the curtain raiser.
Altrichter is a protégé of the famed Czech conductor Libor Pescek. During his six years as music director of England's Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, he was highly regarded. On the basis of his Miami concert, it was hard to tell why. Altrichter appears to be the kind of conductor that gives "Kapellmeister" a bad name - plodding, unimaginative, lacking musical passion. His interpretation of Beethoven's most famous work - the "Symphony No.5 in C Minor," Opus 67 - was incredibly tame and prosaic. After an energetic beginning, the Allegro con brio lapsed into routine lethargy. The nasal sound of Martin Benes's oboe solo was less than ingratiating. The Adagio un poco mosso (which Michael Tilson Thomas made soar with the New World Symphony last season) was lacking in lyricism. Altrichter did not begin to uncover the spiritual uplift of the music's subtext. The Scherzo failed to evoke the mystery and fear that are at the heart of Beethoven's discourse. The double basses (led by Martin Zelenka - a member of a distinguished Czech musical family) played their difficult trio section capably but Altrichter's tempo verged on the funeral. The concluding Allegro evoked neither joy nor triumph. The orchestra's playing was often harsh and unattractive. A dispirited, pedestrian performance of an eternal masterpiece!
The young Czech pianist Martin Kasik was soloist in Beethoven's monumental "Piano Concerto No.5 in E-flat Major," Opus 73 ("Emperor"). South Florida audiences have heard splendid performances of this pianistic titan of a concerto by Bruno Leonardo Gelber, Andre Watts (with the late Hans Vonk leading the St. Louis Symphony), and Christian Zacharias. The Italian pianist Fabio Badini also made a strong showing in this score (despite being sabotaged by conductor Michael Stern). Kasik did not even come close to this grand level of pianism. His tone is basically harsh and percussive; his rhythm erratic and unpredictable. Kasik played more than a few wrong notes in the opening Allegro. Perhaps overtaxed, he omitted the florid cadenza altogether. While he played the Adagio with some dynamic subtlety, he failed to scale the music's eloquence. Too often Kasik seemed merely mechanical. The concluding Rondo: Allegro failed to sparkle. Kasik lacks the technique to make this movement sing forth from the keyboard with brio. While Altrichter astutely balanced the difficult piano-timpani duet at the concerto's conclusion, his orchestral support was tentative at best. As encores Kasik offered a nicely played Chopin Mazurka and a propulsive version of a Toccata by the Czech composer Klement Slavinski - a competition piece. With so many gifted keyboard artists vying to be heard, can a major international orchestral tour be justified for an artist of such minor talent as Kasik?
While ultimately Beethoven's music emerged unscathed, this concert raised disturbing cultural issues regarding a conductor's influence over an orchestra's performance standards. For the once proud Prague Symphony to regain its former luster, it will need new, dynamic musical leadership.