There was absolutely no chance that the first of the Czech Philharmonic orchestra’s two concerts in London this week would be anything other than a special occasion, for musical and non-musical reasons alike. And so it proved.
As the first international orchestra to play in the Barbican Hall since the start of the pandemic, the Czechs would have drawn full houses anyway, especially in programmes featuring three of their greatest native composers. But the invasion of Ukraine supercharged the opening evening even more. Czechs know better than anyone what a Russian invasion is like. The orchestra rose to the occasion with its trademark warm intensity of tone, but also with flashes of a rare fire.
Before the interval, Yuja Wang gave a terrific account of Rachmaninov’s first piano concerto, combining the necessary weight of tone in the opening movement with the fleetest of fleet fingerwork in the finale. Semyon Bychkov was a responsive accompanist, drawing lovely string sound from the orchestra. It was a fine, high quality international concert performance, but of a recognisable and familiar kind.
The music-making in the second half felt altogether more momentous, electrifying in a larger way. From the podium, to huge applause, Russian-born Bychkov made a short speech dedicating the performance of this orchestra’s signature work, Smetana’s Má Vlast, “to the people of Ukraine”, before conducting the Ukrainian national anthem with the entire audience on their feet.
After that buildup, the performance itself might just have been an anticlimax. No such danger. The Czechs have Smetana’s six movement evocation of their homeland in their bones, and they delivered it with real feeling. The expertly scored romantic early movements, with their harps and woodwind solos evoking the Bohemian landscape, flowed expressively. But the more muscular two closing sections, in which Smetana builds the music around a steadfast and patriotic Hussite hymn of defiance, had an unmissable wider message for Europe today.