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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


Bedřich SMETANA (1824-1884)
Má Vlast (My Country)

A cycle of symphonic poems
Vyšehrad (1874) [15.40]
Vltava (The Moldau) (1874) [11.35]
Šárka (1875) [9.43]
Z českých luhů a hájů (From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields) (1875) [13.09]
Tábor (1878) [12.59]
Blaník (1879) [14.15]
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, cond. Rafael Kubelík
DDD: recorded live at the opening concert of the Prague Spring Festival at the Smetana Hall of the Council House, Prague on 12 May 1990
SUPRAPHON 11 1208-2 031 [77.45]
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Má Vlast is one of those pieces we may think we know, but which (in truth, for most of us at least) we know only in part. Vltava has long had a life of its own, of course. And rightly so: with its delectable programme and evocative descriptive effects, it’s high up on the list of everyone’s ‘classical’ favourites. But the other five pieces are hardly less memorable, being rich in atmosphere and patriotic fervour, and full of drama and event. This already-celebrated recording of the complete cycle was made at a very special concert in which a great orchestra and conductor made history: CDs of Má Vlast don’t come better than this.

Kubelík’s fifth recording of the complete Má Vlast cycle marked not only his recovery from a long and serious illness (indeed from virtual retirement) but also his return to his native Czechoslovakia after an absence of more than 40 years. Everything about this supremely involving and spontaneously idiomatic performance confirms the uniqueness of that event.

As so often with live performances, the freedom of pulse and moments of pointed emphasis are hallmarks of a great occasion, and the sort of thing one seldom finds (or which seldom work) in studio recordings. Subtlety is the order of the day: there’s drama in plenty, but no bombast! So the weaker moments (and let’s not pretend that there aren’t any) often emerge with real strength, and the patriotic shouting (at the end of Blaník, say) is never marred by noisy over-statement.

As I commented in my review of the Ančerl recording (11 1925-2 011: same label, same orchestra), our familiarity with the timbre of the great ‘Western’ orchestras often leads us to question the sonorities of the great East European and Russian orchestras. And yet the extraordinarily distinctive colours of the Czech Philharmonic are precisely what Smetana would have heard and wanted. Their range of colour (from the moonlight scene of Vltava to the dark introduction to Tábor) is to be wondered at. And throughout, the playing is wonderfully secure and committed, with distinguished and characterful solos far too numerous to mention.

The recording is digital, but you may nevertheless find that it lacks the bloom, warmth and depth that this music of all music needs and deserves, and which Supraphon have commonly been able to deliver in other issues of similar vintage – such as the Mackerras recording of Má Vlast on Supraphon 3465-2 031. Regrettably, both audience and ambience are intrusive, sometimes when least welcome (such as in the delicate opening of Vltava, where coughing and shuffling mask all the musical detail), and applause – which is (unsurprisingly) rapturous! – is not edited out.

The booklet notes are unhelpfully brief, including as they do nothing about the music itself. Black marks here, I’m afraid.

At the end of the proverbial day, no recording of music so varied and so vital as this deserves to be singled out as a ‘winner’. So I hope no one’s wanting me to declare this the ‘best recording’, or not, as the case may be. But it is, literally, incomparable. Buy it, whether or not you have a Má Vlast already on your shelves!


Peter J Lawson

 



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