Classical review: Czech Philharmonic, Usher Hall, Edinburgh

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THE Czech Philharmonic’s Saturday-night visit to Edinburgh’s Usher Hall, part of a six-stop UK tour, was a curiously muted affair.

Czech Philharmonic

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

***

Not muted in terms of colour – anything but. Under chief conductor Jiří Bělohlávek, the orchestra glowed in vivid hues, with golden strings (and growling double basses arranged across the back of the stage), radiant horns and deliciously acidic woodwind.

No, it was muted in terms of the careful, occassionally rather workaday performances that Bělohlávek delivered – so determined to display urbane sophistication that they seemed to forget their energy and spontaneity. There was even the unavoidable feeling that the players knew the music so well that they may have had little fresh to say.

It was the sole non-Czech piece, Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto, that stood out. French pianist Hélène Grimaud’s bright, sometimes brittle performance, full of steely sonorities and astonishing technical displays, played down the concerto’s heroic aspects in favour of an impetuous, restless energy. Her limpid slow movement might not have wrung out every last drop of the music’s emotion, but it was still beautifully realised in its clarity and nobility. But there was a mismatch between Grimaud’s spirited playing and Bělohlávek’s soft-edged orchestral accompaniment – climaxes were lost, telling moments thrown away.

Elsewhere, though, there was plenty of bucolic charm in the Dvořák Fifth Symphony, and Smetana’s From Bohemia’s Meadows and Forests had a glorious rhythmic suppleness.