> Bedrich SMETANA - Ma Vlast [TB]: Classical CD Reviews- Nov 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Bedrich SMETANA (1824-1884)
Ma Vlast

Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Libor Pesek
Rec 12 May 1995, Rudolfinum Hall, Prague
REGIS RRC 1099 [74.29]


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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).

Terry Barfoot

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