for admirers of the Czech muse. Foerster was born a subject
of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and spent an unusually long
period in Vienna. His accent is far nearer to the Viennese-Bohemian
than the Bohemian-Viennese. For many years we have existed
on the 1968 Prague Symphony/Smetáček Fourth Symphony
which specialists have augmented with the 1948 Czech Philharmonic/Kubelik
(both Supraphon) and the occasional broadcast performance.
So it’s excellent news that this new Slovak performance of
the Symphony has been newly issued augmented by two previously
Let’s start there.
The Festive Overture dates from 1907. It starts big
and carries on thus; “flair and elegance” Friedel’s notes
advise us and he’s not wrong. The dance rhythms, the waltz
so evocatively Viennese, are untroubled, the Mahlerian echoes
perhaps rather undigested, and there’s a rather unexpected
coda just when one expects an injection of even more unbridled
is a slightly earlier work though it isn’t precisely dated
in the notes so far as I can see – something that applies
to the symphony as well and which I’ve added. There’s a heavingly
romantic second subject, strong reverie and nostalgia (as
one would expect) interrupted by chirruping winds. The influences
are Dvořák especially in the wind writing – strong reminiscences
of Act I of Rusalka – and Smetana; Vltava is evoked
more than once, not least in the trumpet climax. There’s a
jokey cod-academic fugato and plenty of fun. It’s not as reflective
and as personal a work as one might have imagined from its
The Symphony is the work by which Foerster
is perhaps best known. From its opening Mahlerian march, with
its allusions to the First Symphony (Mahler’s Bohemianism
is another link) we meet a sombrely unfolding opening Molto
sostenuto. In this performance it’s not as intense or
fleet as the Smetáček and the Slovak strings are not
as nutty and woody as their much earlier Prague counterparts.
Kubelik, in a recording that hasn’t come up well in the last
transfer, is very slow in comparison, mired in grief, inward
and intense. It’s a most remarkable reading, in which both
outer movements are big symphonic statements in their own
right but unfortunately in dim and very congested 1948 sound.
I recommend it for the Foerster admirer but in this context
the competition is the 1968 traversal.
The Brucknerian brass climax at around
8.30 in this movement shows another powerful influence on
Foerster’s emotive-symphonic thinking. Listen to the straighter
Slovak winds here; the 1968 Prague winds had a touch more
character to them, albeit idiosyncratic character at times.
If I have quibbles with this new reading
they centre mainly on the rather po-faced scherzo. Next to
Smetáček’s enviable rhythmic wit and pointing Friedel
sounds rather tame and rather too heavy as well. The slow
movement is a glorious one and here Friedel really expands
and wrings every drop of emotion. The orchestral balance here
is especially judicious – we can catch the solo violin/two
bassoon writing – and this suits the inward and reflective
music making. The Slovak performance bathes more lingeringly
whilst Smetáček’s approach is that much more bracing
and lithe. He is more outgoingly lyrical and the Brucknerian
build up in this movement is more eruptive, and intense, in
The Mahlerian gloom that pervades the finale’s
opening is pitched faster and more tensely in the older recording.
Friedel is good with dynamics and sensitively shapes this
movement but Smetáček, alert to those moments of weakness
in its structure, is careful to push on to mitigate them.
Again, the very pungent Prague Symphony winds make a strong
contrast to the more homogenised - doubtless Beecham would
have said pasteurised - Slovak Radio players.
The Naxos performance is characterised
by fine balances and care; it’s a warmly sympathetic reading.
I prefer the older one under Smetáček for all sorts of
reasons but it was recorded nearly forty years ago. So newcomers
will revel in Foerster’s splendid Symphony and will enjoy
the crisp and affectionate direction of the Naxos and at bargain
price. They might additionally want to know Foerster’s movement
indications, ones Naxos have omitted, will be found on other
discs and in biographical works on the composer, and they
explain the symphony’s Easter Eve title in greater
detail – The Road to Calvary, A Child’s Good Friday,
The Charm of Solitude and Holy Saturday Victorious.