In a glorious Saturday afternoon in St Paul’s Church, we were served a delicious evening of orchestral works from that great son of Bohemia, Antonín Dvořák, with a somewhat appropriate sandwich-filling of his contemporary, Johannes Brahms. The German was highly influential in the rise of Dvořák’s fortunes as it was with his support and guidance that set the plucky young Czech on a more nationalistic and, indeed, populist path.
So it was fitting that the Chichester Symphony Orchestra opened their Summer Concert with a selection from his first set of Slavonic Dances. Composed in 1878, these pieces finally delivered the wider recognition he deserved. Whilst Brahms may have been accused of appropriating melodies for his similar Hungarian Dances, Dvořák merely idealized elements of traditional Czech folk dances and remoulded them into original and highly individual orchestral pieces. A variety of mood was covered in a terrific performance by the CSO with abundant detail and colouring, from the potent vigour of the furiants to the delightful charm of the sousedská. The boundless energy of the popular dance No. VIII, in full presto tempo, only highlights Dvořák’s ground-breaking harmonic ingenuity. Interestingly, this switch of mode in a melodic thread swapping from major to minor, is often, erroneously, considered a modern device (just hum the opening bars of the theme from HBO’s Game of Thrones and you’ll see the remarkable similarity; we composers stand on the shoulders of giants).
Which brings us to the sweet filling of Johannes Brahms’s Violin Concerto, written in the same year and dedicated to the composer’s friend, the virtuoso Joseph Joachim. Undeniably he would need to be skilful, as the piece is fiendishly difficult for any soloist. It is fortunate for us then that the CSO’s one-time Leader, Catherine Lawlor, stepped up to give a truly breath-taking performance. I cannot stress enough how technically demanding and formidable this work is for a violinist. It stands as a watershed in the repertoire with good reason: the rapid passagework, enormous rhythmic variation and abundance of multiple-stops are challenging in the extreme and Lawlor’s execution was as confident and sure-footed as I have heard. Highly impressive. Special mention must also go to the woodwind section’s sonorous wind chorale in the second movement and a polished oboe solo by Wendy Carpenter.
It must be said at this point that I am not a fan of the acoustics in St Paul’s. The sound reflections give an unpleasant and nebulous effect to the music that serves to dampen all those wonderful articulations. The problem was further augmented by the bassoons and harmonically-rich low brass playing from a raised platform in the apse. Despite this, conductor Simon Wilkins maintained the orchestra in a balanced and tightly controlled manner which negated some of these disagreeable environmental effects.
After the interval, we returned to Dvořák and his Symphony No. 5, a beautiful pastoral work evoking the landscapes of his native Bohemia, and the orchestra captured the balmy summer mood of the first movement perfectly. The enchanting slow movement, with its ample provision of counter-melodies, was equally delivered as the composer intended: a relaxing walk in the Czech countryside. The jovial scherzo followed by a darker trio kept the music alive and fascinating before the powerful finale. Here, again, Dvořák shows his harmonic originality by opening the movement with a forceful A minor chord, quite foreign to the tonic F major to which we return only after a long and exhilarating journey through considerable suspense and drama.
It was, ultimately, a wonderful evening; a snapshot of romantic music at its finest, arousing an array of emotions and full of vitality.
Now, after all that adventure, there was talk of a sandwich?