REVIEW: That’s the way to do it. The PRSO and Alexander Liebreich
You want to exclaim, That’s the way to do it. The Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra had just completed the programme of an extraordinary concert. They played as if reborn. In front of them on the rostrum, for the first time, was the conductor Alexander Liebreich.
The Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra’s concert took place on Sunday 29 October at the Rudolfinum as Echoes of the Czech-German Cultural Spring 2007. And Liebreich wasn’t the only star of the evening.
The soloist on Shostakovich’s Concerto for Cello and Orchestra No. 1 was Alban Gerhardt. Both German artists proved to be extraordinary, charismatic personalities. The conductor as a musical, energetic and at the same time modest and inconspicuous mover, the cellist as a strikingly distinctive interpreter utterly devoted to the music.
The Shostakovich concerto came in response to a challenge from Mstislav Rostropovich and premiered, performed by him, in Leningrad in autumn 1959. The piece, so rewarding to listeners, explores the theme of a striking foundational four-tone motif. The first and third movements are rapid, virtuoso, fierce and rough, but also piquant and to a certain degree also witty, if not jolly. From the start the soloist played with amazing engagement physically and in terms of content, determinedly driving the composition forward.
The string section again and again intensively attacked the limits of their instruments, directing the urgency frenziedly in a rapid sequence of tones, even in interludes, right to the hilt. When the cantilena arrived the cellist naturally found a daintier tone and in the loose middle movement, in which he also plays alone for a lengthy spell, reached wonderfully engrossing, immense and grave depths.
Alban Gerhardt is a non-conformist musician whose range encompasses both classic concert halls and performances in prisons and hospitals, in public spaces and on trains. As one and combining energies with the accompanying conductor, he played the Shostakovich with pronounced, large and infectious personal investment and so extraordinarily that the piece will remain under the skin for a long time after this evening.
The subsequent Brahms’ Fourth Symphony was a display of the power of conducting brilliance that by gesture, example and will manages to break down the banks and, in a new, extraordinary current, lead the orchestra to a unique, exceptional performance. From the first tones there were detailed, inspirational instructions from the rostrum, resulting in a rigorous view of motifs, phrasing, expression and the spirit of a piece that might otherwise tempt a simple, strong-arm approach.
The first movement demonstrated Brahms’ musical mentality in exemplary fashion. The second was soft, then energetic and finally emotion-filled, the third was direct and the closing one epically expressive. Alexander Liebreich emphasised the romanticism in Brahms’ music somewhat more than the classical construction, and ultimately expression over contrapuntal form.
In the context, the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra’s standard became in his rendition an exceptional performance, resulting in an extraordinary concert in the true sense of the word. The soloist Alban Gerhardt asked to sit in with the cello section during the Brahms symphony. This occurred and he received a music stand and played the piece utterly spectacularly. Highlighted by the conductor ex post, he received thanks and a personal embrace at the very end. An unprecedented story.
The evening had begun with A Study for Strings by Pavel Haas, the final piece by a composer imprisoned in Terezín for racial reasons and murdered in Auschwitz weeks later.
His inclusion on the Czech-German programme, which nods to neighbourhood and cooperation between Czech and German culture, attained the dimensions of a painful memento. Without question a worthwhile score. However, in the context of two other pieces it was somewhat less perfect and a somewhat less strong interpretation.