> Bedrich Smetana - Ma Vlast [JW]: Classical CD Reviews- Oct 2002 MusicWeb(UK)






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Bedrich SMETANA (1824-1884)
Ma Vlast (1879)
Gewandhausorchester Leipzig/Vaclav Neumann
Recorded Leipzig 1968
BERLIN CLASSICS 0032342BC [79.56]


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The recording date in Berlin Classics’ documentation – confined to brief descriptive paragraphs about the music - is given as 1968 but I wonder if it’s not 1967, the last year of Vaclav Neumann’s period as conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and as general music director of the Leipzig Opera. The following, fateful year saw him back in Prague as chief conductor of the Czech Philharmonic. As an envoi to his period of success in Leipzig, notably the famous Falsenstein production of The Cunning Little Vixen, his Ma Vlast is a loving, leisurely and warm interpretation.

Too leisurely in fact and one of the least athletic traversals I’ve heard. When he re-recorded Ma Vlast in Prague a few years later – in 1975 with the Czech Philharmonic – he was slightly to rethink the individual tone poems and in every case a process of tightening up occurred. But the extent of that structural re-evaluation was really negligible in the context of his conception of the cycle as a whole and it remained consistently the case that Neumann’s view differed fundamentally from that of his august predecessors and indeed from that of many of his Czech conducting contemporaries. Which is, in and of itself, no bad thing necessarily. But compare Neumann’s Vyšehrad with Kubelík eight or nine years earlier or Ancerl from 1963 and their immediacy and tension and sheer incisiveness register that much more viscerally – as indeed do their identical timings, a minute and a half quicker than Neumann. Neumann’s relative heaviness manifests itself in Vltava – Ancerl wasn’t much slower, judged by the stopwatch, but his accents are better pointed, his rhythmic flexibility is more pronounced; Neumann by comparison is quite distended, trumpets poorly balanced in the concluding peroration and the otherwise fine playing put to the service of a rather lethargically flowing river. Talich was always a proponent of relatively quick tempi here but not even could quite match the young Kubelik’s 78s of Vltava and From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields – the only parts of the cycle issued and blazingly passionate. Šárka, as if to belie Neumann’s reputation for over comfortable tempi, is in sheer contradistinction emphatically aggressive and fast, but From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields is just too flaccid, uninflected and stodgy ever to swell and crest the melodies as had, say, Talich, Kubelik, Ancerl and the neglected but magnificent Otakar Jeremiáš, before him. Tábor and Blaník observe the same relative properties as most of the rest of the cycle – a rather restrained, lax and indulgent perspective. Again it would be tempting to see this as an over nostalgic view of home from abroad but his Czech performance is much the same, only slightly quicker.

I can’t pretend that this is an interpretation that will detain most lovers of Ma Vlast. Even in Czech terms it occupies a distinct place – deliberate, avuncular, relatively somnambulant – that is in oppositional conflict to the vivid and dramatic surge of Talich, Jeremiáš and Kubelík. If you like your Ma Vlast on the distended side, though, maybe eighty minutes with Neumann is time well spent.

Jonathan Woolf


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