For those who admired the musicianship of the late Jiří Bělohlávek, who had been scheduled to bring his Czech Philharmonic on their current UK and Ireland tour, this concert was tinged with sadness. But it was also tribute to Bělohlávek’s legacy that his pupil Tomáš Netopil – recently named the orchestra’s joint principal guest conductor with Jakub Hrůša – should uphold its characteristic warmth and vigour so confidently. Perhaps the biggest test of how Netopil matches up will come in the tour concerts featuring Smetana’s Má Vlast, but in the two works by Dvořák, his Symphonic Variations and the New World Ninth Symphony, he showed his mettle in dextrous control of rhythmic discipline and the give-and-take of rubato.
Let’s not pretend the Symphonic Variations constitute a masterpiece. Yet this earnest demonstration of the composer’s orchestral palette pointed up the unusual expressive detail in the instrumentation of the Ninth, written 16 years later. In this, homeland nostalgia was implicit in woodwind timbre, notably the Largo’s cor anglais, even if Netopil’s overall approach was often unsentimental and brisk. The strings, muted and hushed, or gleaming as in the stirring finale, had the authentic Czech tone.
Alisa Weilerstein was the soloist in Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto. Her robust sound brought an insistent edge to the outer movements, yet it was in the solo cadenza – constituting the whole of the central third movement – that her tracing of its vast emotional span achieved a memorable intensity.