For some time now the Prague Spring Festival has wisely abandoned the earlier tradition of invariably concluding the Festival with what have all too often turned out to be middle-of-the-road performances of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony – instead choosing to crown the Festival with programmes that highlight unduly neglected repertoire. This year was indeed a case in point. The highlight of the evening was a truly remarkable performance of the haunting Zalm zeme podkarpatskej – “Psalm of the sub-Carpathian land” (1938) by the Slovak composer, Eugen Suchoň (1908-1993), whom perhaps most readers will know for his charming patriotic part-song, “Aká si mi krásna”. But the “Psalm” is a very substantial work indeed, and this evening’s performance made it amply evident that it is undoubtedly a true masterpiece.
There was perhaps a very distant echo from Suk’s Asrael (particularly in the pizzicato passages), whilst Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass and works by Frank Martin and even Lili Boulanger also came fleetingly to mind; but the “Psalm” is a work of great originality, and deserves fuller recognition for its true stature as a major work of the twentieth century. The Slovak Philharmonic played securely and sympathetically under James Judd, but the real stars of the evening were the Slovak Philharmonic Chorus, trained by Jozef Chabroň, who performed the virtuoso choral part with great beauty, impeccable precision and vocal suppleness. I have to admit that they are almost certainly the finest Chorus I have heard in the Czech Republic to date. The demanding tenor part was performed with fluency and ease by Jan Vacík. It is difficult to single out any particular moment from a masterpiece, since it is apt to work as an organic whole, with no passages of greater or lesser importance than others; but the extended section with exquisite writing for female semichorus, with a soaring violin solo supported by a pedal constituted by a hypnotically reiterated note on the harp, will long linger in the mind of this listener.
The concert commenced with Fibich’s overture Komenský, which started rather as if it might be Beethoven’s Coriolan overture, but somewhat anachronistically (having been written at the end of the nineteenth century) turned out to be rather Schumannesque. The concert ended with a performance of the Janáček Sinfonietta, rendered perhaps rather tame by the unusually broad tempi of the conductor, but affording ample opportunities for the Slovak Philharmonic to demonstrate their cultured sound, transparency and precision, whereby details that are all too often lost were lucidly brought out.
It was an inspired decision to offer this closing concert to the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus, and programming the Suchoň “Psalm” was a stroke of brilliant dramaturgy – a Cinderella of a masterpiece marvellously realised, and more than apt in the light of the current centennial celebrations marking the independence of Czechoslovakia.
Haig Utidjian, PhD