Among the various orchestras that have visited the Colosseum in recent years, the Czech National Symphony Orchestra will stand out in the memory. Partly this is due to their decision to play only Czech music. All three works were by Czech composers, familiar and popular. 

The programme started vigorously. Rather than an overture, the orchestra played one of the sequence of symphonic poems Ma Vlast (My Country). This was From Bohemia's Forests and Meadows (often translated as Woods and Fields) by Smetana, written in the 1860s. Like so much of his music, this used the idioms of folk music, and had a character that we still recognise as Bohemian. Few people were as significant in the national movement in an area that was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and is now in the Czech Republic; nowadays Bohemian music still reminds us of his aspirations.

Composed some years later, Dvorak's works are similar expressions of national feeling in Bohemia. His 'Cello Concerto, written in 1894-95, is only vaguely based on classical structures, and the whole work is comprised of melodies that are now well known, handled in a variety of ways. The 'cello soloist, Natalie Clein, is not only a talented player but also combined sympathetically with the orchestra - this is not the sort of concerto in which the soloist is first and the orchestra almost nowhere. The woodwind section took up especially impressively the opportunities that Dvorak provided. The slow movement particularly has idyllic themes with a flavour of Slavonic folk music. In the last movement, rondo form can be detected, but the structure is free. What one remembers is the persuasive melodies, the dialogue between 'cello and orchestra and the inventive orchestration.

Dvorak's Ninth Symphony, From the New World, of 1893, came after the interval. As throughout the concert, the conductor, Libor Pesek, exercised impressive control over both ensemble and dynamics in the orchestra, yet with restrained conducting technique - making me think of Sir Adrian Boult, whom I often saw conducting in this hall. This mattered, because the symphony is so well known that the audience would be sensitive to any oddities of interpretation. Again, passages for the woodwind section were important. The symphony was written in the USA, and its melodies have American reminiscences, which is the reason for the title, but again we were aware of Dvorak's Bohemian sympathies. The string section of the orchestra naturally provided the essential basis for the music, and also, for instance, expressive contributions to Dvorak's harmonies. The orchestra was happy with the passages of fast tempo and exciting rhythms. The Czech people have a long-standing reputation for their contribution to serious Western music, which this concert more than confirmed.

Graham Mordue

Five stars