Smetana's cycle of six symphonic poems, Ma Vlast
(My Country) is one of the cornerstone's of the orchestral
repertory, and in the Czech Republic it is played as frequently as the
best loved works of Dvořák. Therefore
there are many recordings, and any new issue will encounter a crowded
and fiercely competitive market place. That is true of the complete
cycle, without taking account of the fact that some of the individual
pieces which make up the whole, in particular Vltava,
are often performed and recorded separately.
This CD is a live recording of a performance given
in the home of the Czech Philharmonic, the magnificent Rudolfinum Hall
on the banks of the Vltava river in Prague. The occasion was the 50th
Prague Spring Festival, in May 1995.
The performance is all that we might expect. The orchestra
clearly knows the music well, and the technical quality of the playing
is beyond criticism. So too Pesek's conducting. He has performed Ma
Vlast as often as any living conductor, but each performance of a great
work such as this will uncover new truths about the music. One of the
gains of this particular enterprise is that the effect of the whole
is more than merely the sum of the parts. In other words, Pesek gives
a considered interpretation with longer term issues in mind; and that
is of great benefit as far as the later movements, Tabor and
Blaník, are concerned.
These two, with the somewhat static opening movement,
Vysehrad, are seldom performed outside the context of the whole
cycle, and it is true that they benefit from being heard in context.
Pesek chooses tempi and phrasing which are faultless, and very much
in keeping with the larger vision.
These points apply also to the remaining movements:
Vltava, Sarka and From Bohemia's Woods and Fields,
which between them add a degree of urgency and certainly contain the
highest level of melodic inspiration. Pesek brings out the character
of the memorable themes, and he is also successful in bringing the dance
characteristics to the fore when necessary. There are, for example,
polkas in both Vltava and From Bohemia's Woods and Fields.
So far, this would make the recording seem like a first
recommendation, which it is not. There are two reasons why this issue
becomes an interesting 'also-ran'. First of all, there are some annoyingly
intrusive contributions from the audience, often at crucially quiet
moments (some people do tend to cough when tensions are high, in quiet
music). Then there is the quality of the recorded sound. There is nothing
wrong with this, as such, but it does have less range and clarity than
might be ideal. At the bargain Regis price no-one purchasing this disc
is likely to complain, but by paying a little more it is possible to
acquire more vivid performances of this great work. There are, for example,
splendid recordings conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras (Supraphon) and
Rafael Kubelik (DG).