This concert presents a wonderful selection of Czech music from the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries. When Czech nationalism reared its head against Habsburg domination, Bedřich Smetana was one of the first to express this patriotism through his music. With his cycle of six symphonic poems entitled Má vlast, which includes The Moldau, he paid tribute to the beauty of his native country. Antonín Dvořák continued down the same road, but tried to bring music more into the European mainstream, as evidenced by his masterly Cello Concerto. Finally, with his ‘speech melodies’ Leoš Janáček allowed the essence of the Czech language to permeate his musical style, and with orchestral works like Taras Bulba, a rhapsody based on Gogol’s story, he put his own stamp on European music. The programme for this concert was drawn up by Gerd Albrecht who had to pull out suddenly for health reasons. He is replaced by Antonio Méndez who agreed to perform this same exceptional and demanding programme.
You have conducted work by Tchaikovsky and Dvořák on several occasions. What is it that attracts you to romantic music?
I’m really interested in the romantic repertoire. Musically I feel like an adopted son of Germany: I am very familiar with the German repertoire – and by extension with Dvořák, Tchaikovsky and the whole of late romanticism. Recently I conducted Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, his Sixth with the Tonhalle Orchestra from Zürich and his Seventh in Belfast. Next year I’m conducting the Sixth again, this time in Moscow with the Russian National Orchestra. Dvořák is a composer I like to include in a programme, a composer I feel comfortable with…perhaps because he is so close to the Germanic music tradition. Dvořák knew how to get the best out of an orchestra and each of his symphonies sounds different.
What do find particularly attractive about the Slavic repertoire compared to the German?
In a way I think the two repertoires share a lot of common ground. The friendship between Brahms and Dvořák, the two most important exponents of German and Slavic music at the time, is well known. In terms of sound and phrasing they have a lot in common. Both strive for a particular sound: that dark, deep sound of the strings, that noble sound of the brasses. So, for example, there are many similarities between Brahms’ Second Symphony and Dvořák’s Sixth Symphony and between Brahms’ Third and Dvořák’s Seventh.
It is well known that Smetana, Dvořák and Janáček expressed their love of their native country in their music. Do you take the composer’s national feeling into account in your interpretation?
A composer’s music is intrinsically influenced by his language, just as it is also defined by his cultural background and even his country’s landscape. I think that what distinguishes Janáček from Smetana and Dvořák is the study he made of the Czech language. That’s why Janáček’s music is more clearly influenced by the Czech language and culture. This cannot be ignored when you listen to Jenůfa or Taras Bulba.
You are conducting a programme put together by another conductor. How do you deal with this?
As maestro Albrecht had to step aside, it is my responsibility to ensure that the concert is a success. First and foremost I have to bear in mind that the orchestra spent the whole of January working on Jenůfa with Ludovic Morlot. Though that is a different work, the orchestra has nevertheless developed its own language and form for playing Janáček. The time spent on Jenůfa is a legacy I have inherited. I will build on that and strive for what I always see as my mission, which is to bring out the sonority of each composer within a cohesive programme.
Talking about coherence, what connection do you see between the works in this concert?
Taras Bulba is the central piece to which two other works had to be added: Dvořák’s Cello Concerto and Smetana’s The Moldau, undoubtedly one of his most celebrated pieces, and also one that is closely bound up with the Czech culture. It is a very consistent and easy to follow trajectory, both for the orchestra and for the audience. Regardless of the nationalist orientation, this is a very clear and logical programme. Each work inherits something from the previous work. Dvořák is the beneficiary of Smetana and the central figure in late-nineteenth-century Czech music. Then Janáček is perhaps the main beneficiary of Dvořák. By linking Smetana, Dvořák and Janáček in that way, this programme reveals a certain ‘alternation of generations’ within Czech music. So the chronological order illustrates the evolution of Slavic music in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Recorded by Antonio Cuenca Ruiz