Compared to others I have heard, the first symphonic
poem in the cycle, Vyšehrad, is rather well handled. Mehta guides
his fine orchestra with well turned phrasing. This carefully structured
movement tends to the static and it sounds as well here as it ever does.
It is Vltava that exemplifies Mehta’s view of the remaining five
pieces in the cycle. The opening big tune works well enough but the
dances at the Peasant Wedding seem rather militaristic and rigid with
little sense of the Slavic countryside. Despite his poor recording,
Kubelik’s Vltava on the recently released Eloquence CD (458 180-2),
is much better.
In Mehta’s hands the St John Rapids are dominated by
thudding timpani and the "big-bass-drum". It is as if Sony
are trying to outdo Telarc with bass energy, or the percussionist strayed
in from a Sousa recording next door. I suspect this moment might overwhelm
small systems. There is, however, generally a decent sense of acoustic
here, a rare enough event these days. Šárka is fairly
dramatic, but considering that it depicts the tale of a wronged maiden
presiding over a bloodbath, Mehta is rather too controlled. From
Bohemia’s Woods and Fields sounds curiously uninteresting. In the
right hands this movement can be a joy. Here it seems just well turned
out. The celebratory Tábor and Blaník are
delivered with an appropriate mixture of austerity and grandeur, with
the strings of the Israel Philharmonic sounding particularly good, especially
the cellos and basses. Unfortunately the end of Blaník
is a bit perfunctory and left me feeling slightly cheated of a resolution.
It makes one pause, and indeed marvel, that Smetana
attended, but could not hear, the first performance of this lovely
cycle of symphonic poems. By 1882 his illness had deprived him of his
hearing. Two years later it was to deprive him first of his sanity and
then of his life. What we hear is the work of a deaf composer. Somehow
that makes Má Vlást an "essential classic"
which deserves a place in this appropriately named Sony series. The
issue is whether Zubin Mehta’s performance is the one to choose for
your essential collection when Naxos for example, have Antoni Wit’s
lovely recording at a very similar price, and there are several other
authentic performances by Czech orchestras and conductors in the catalogues.
Good though Mehta and the IPO are, I have my doubts.
The notes are useful but imperfectly proofed. However
it is nice to have Smetana’s own programmes included. Sony’s documentation
does not give away anything about the recording save its date, in a
microscopic typeface as usual, so I have gleaned the information above
from other sources.