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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Romeo and Juliet, fantasy overture for large orchestra (1869, rev. 1870 and 1880) [19:54]
Symphony No. 1 in G minor, Op. 13, Winter Daydreams (1866, rev. 1874) [41:01]
Prague Symphony Orchestra/Václav Smetáček (conductor)
rec. Dvořák Hall, Rudolfinum, Prague, 29 April 1963 (overture), 22-24 June 1961 (symphony). ADD.
SUPRAPHON SU 3895-2 [61:07]

This Supraphon release marks the centenary of Czech conductor Václav Smetáček’s birth, but also the twentieth anniversary of his death. His position in Czech musical life was a varied one, being a musicologist and university professor of distinction whilst being active as an oboist and composer as well as a conductor of a wide range of orchestras at home and abroad. From 1942 to 1972 he served as chief conductor of the Prague Symphony Orchestra. These two recordings from the early 1960s capture that partnership in fine form.
The Romeo and Juliet overture is given in a vividly drawn account, which owes much to Smetáček’s dramatic sense of pacing, the full and up-front tone of the orchestra and occasional spotlighting of instrumental lines to increase their impact. Built out of passages portraying several distinct episodes from Shakespeare’s drama, this is an overture that relies more on contrast between the elements rather than seeking unity of them.  Smetáček’s reading delivers much in the way of internal contrast. He brings out the terseness of orchestration within the Friar Laurence episode at the start and the fights between the Montagues and Capulets are given real energy, as they must if they are to be fully effective. That said, the shifting harmonics of Tchaikovsky’s soaring love theme are real heart-on-sleeve material and one can sense the excitement behind the playing. The closing coda forms a tragic epilogue depicting the lovers’ deaths, and here Smetáček more than hints at the introspection Tchaikovsky requires. The 1963 sound is faithful and atmospheric without being overly hard-edged – indeed only the often-used cymbals seem to suffer much in this regard.
The First Symphony is a work of some precociousness, even when considered against the composer’s later works in the genre. Recently I was impressed by the work in concert with the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Vladimir Jurowski (see review). Smetáček, like Jurowski, makes much of the strength in Tchaikovsky’s orchestration throughout, though he does not unsettle the first movement quite as much. This is a movement noticeably influenced by thoughts of nature at the start, progressing to more personal matters as the music progresses. Over the darkly hued strings, the woodwinds chirrup to good effect adding some atmosphere along the way. Much the same mood pervades some of the second movement, with themes freely inspired by folk material. Ultimately though the landscape grows ever more frosty, and it is this change in atmosphere that Smetáček’s forces convey with such ease.
The third movement scherzo sees much interplay between light and shade in the orchestration, with instrumental weight playing a decisive role. If the link to the ensuing allegro scherzando giocoso is momentarily tentative, the section once in full flow moves with elegance and grace. Reasonable care with the recording balance and dynamic levels ensures that much detail within the brass, woodwind and timpani parts tells without being overstated. The symphony closes with a lengthy andante lugubre – allegro maestoso movement. Its more sullen mood is evident in the opening bassoon line, but flute, clarinet and massed strings strive to lighten things temporarily. Around three minutes into the movement premonitions of future great events begin to take hold, and there is little tentative in the transition at this point. Ultimately the fugal writing that dominates the final minutes leads Vít Roubíček in his concise yet informative booklet note to write:
“… the composition suffers somewhat from the typical malady of all beginning geniuses, which is to say that it is overflowing with geysers of ideas which are not always handled well from the standpoint of form [with] its youthful energy and frankness”.
There is, in my view, some justification for the remark. It would however be a mistake to see the work as fatally flawed as a consequence, as Smetáček’s account bears out. He takes Tchaikovsky at face value and makes no apologies for the composer’s freely exhibited youthfulness of expression. As a result, one becomes aware just how much Tchaikovsky owed to western European musical style, even at an early age. Such knowledge only serves to heighten ones appreciation of Tchaikovsky’s later works in this genre and others.
A rewarding and recommendable disc: the symphony in particular is given its due in a highly involving reading.
Evan Dickerson


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