Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

Music that is like breath upon water

The concert at the National Concert Hall on Monday of this week, by the Prague Symphony Orchestra, was sensationally good. The heart of its magic lay in the playing by Nikolai Demidenko of Chopin's First Piano Concerto.

There were moments in the concluding bars of the beautiful second movement when his touch upon the keys was like a breath upon water, so subtle, so transient. This was music to stir the heart, to inspire in one self-belief and immortalise self-worth. Music should do that. It should raise that swelling, physical response to the purity of sound as Chopin relays to us through a great performance his unchanging and immortal message.

Nikolai Demidenko played in what I can only describe as a modest and exploratory fashion, as though he were discovering, before our eyes, the inner magic of this compelling work. Nothing of his personality, other than this electrifying investigation of the work itself, intruded. For one thing, when not playing, his head was turned towards the orchestra and at times he became a second conductor, his hands raised to invite a particular sweep of orchestral sound before delivering his own magical part of the work.

Libor Pesek responded with an almost visceral understanding of his soloist, turning at times with his left hand in an open gesture towards him as though inviting him to take over. We witnessed a musical relationship between quite different spirits.

Pesek's style is laconic, detached. Yet he is entirely the master of his players. His hand and baton gestures are minimalist. Yet he extracted from the orchestra remarkable playing and a sense of forceful cohesion and lyrical understanding that made the middle work of the concert a superb experience. Unusually, he stepped aside at the end to allow the soloist give his own encore in a further piece by Chopin.

The concerto was sandwiched between two works by Dvorak, his Carnival Overture and the Symphony entitled From the New World, an indication to his own people and his Czech homeland of impressions and greetings. This is music closer to Pesek's heart than any other. He has played and recorded Dvorak during much of his full and successful life as a conductor and the ease and simplicity of his assured direction of the orchestra was a joy to witness.

This concert was the penultimate in the current series which will conclude with the Staatskapelle of Dresden on Saturday June 13 under Daniel Harding. The programme then includes Schumann's Violin Concerto with Renaud Capucon as soloist, the Schumann Overture, Genoveva and Brahms's Second Symphony, my favourite of the four.

It is hard to speak too highly of the orchestral concerts that have been brought to the National Concert Hall in recent years, and also of the six great orchestras for the 2009-2010 season.

The mood of anticipation has an electric quality and the audience is usually richly rewarded by the power and completeness of great orchestral playing.

When the Chicago Symphony Orchestra came, some years ago, I remember being greatly impressed by the array of double basses, 10 or 12 of them, more than I had ever seen at the NCH, and it became a kind of benchmark (there were seven on Monday, reduced for the concerto but restored for the Dvorak Ninth Symphony).

The coming season includes a visit of the another Czech orchestra, the Philharmonic, under its conductor, Jakub Hrusa, with Nicola Benedetti to play Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto. This will be accompanied by two Czech works, Martinu's Estampes and Dvorak's Seventh Symphony and it is on Tuesday, October 27.

It's a long way away and one wonders about making the decisions for these concerts, which run through to May 15 of next year.

There are incentives and there is the very real appeal of well-chosen works of music that are diverse and popular.

The first in the new season, on September 6, a Saturday, is given by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra under its music director, Ricardo Chailly, and with Saleem Abboud Ashkar playing the Mendelssohn Piano Concerto. There is also Mendelssohn's Hebrides Overture, or Fingal's Cave. Mendelssohn is coupled with Mussorgsky's two most popular works, Night on the Bare Mountain and Pictures at an Exhibition.

The London Symphony Orchestra comes in November with a mainly Schubert concert of the Rosamunde Overture and the Ninth Symphony. They are coupled with an orchestral work by Berg.

Three further concerts are scheduled for 2010, including the Halle Symphony Orchestra with Mark Elder conducting and Joanna MacGregor on piano.