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Bedřich SMETANA (1824-1884)
Má Vlast, complete (1874-1879) [78:58]
Concertgebouw Orchestra/Antal Doráti
rec. Amsterdam Concertgebouw, September 1956 ADD Mono
PHILIPS ELOQUENCE ICONS AUSTRALIA 476 8717 [78:58]


Czech music before and after the French Revolution is a story of 18th century exodus and 19th century return; of classical supremacy and national rebirth; of old guard conservatives resisting new blood radicals; of the many who took refuge in other, more economically rewarding pastures (Vienna, Paris, Berlin, London); of the few who, in trying to bridge the divide, never left; of the ongoing conflict and tension between the language and culture of the ruling Hapsburg aristocracy (German) and the vernacular and custom of the people (Czech).

Fired by the European insurrections of 1830 and 1848/49, Czech romantic nationalism was about the rhythm, colour and sound of Czech life, Czech history, Czech speech, Czech landscape, Czech feeling. Vorisek and Skroup pointed the way. Smetana staked the road. Dvořák illuminated it. Janáček and Suk trumped its glory.

Six self-contained but musically-linked symphonic poems, Má Vlast (My Country), dedicated to the city of Prague, epitomises the ultimate patriotic epic. ‘No comparable work [exists] in European music’ (Harnoncourt).

I Vyšehrad – ‘the half-legendary rock towering above the Vltava, awakening in the poet’s mind dreams of its glory and final fall as the original seat of Bohemia’s rulers and kings, the harp of the bard Lumir echoing within the halls of the castle’

II Vltava – ‘the source and course’ of Bohemia’s most famous river, from stream to St John Rapids to waterway, fading ‘from the poet’s sight in the greater flood of the Elbe’. Forest hunt, village wedding, nymphs bathing in moonlight, rapids, Vyšehrad, Prague.

III Šarka – ‘the old legend of Šarka the Amazonian burning for revenge upon the whole race of men. She bids her fellow warrior maidens to bind her to a tree so that in her apparent distress she may awake the pity of, and so ambush, the approaching Knight of Ctirad. He and his followers indulge in a reckless drinking-bout, as the mead-goblet goes around, until one and all sink to the ground in deep sleep. Thereupon the warrior maidens, summoned by Šarka’s horn-call, set about their work of blood and slaughter.’

IV From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields – ‘the beauties of the Czech countryside, the poetry of its woods and fertile valleys, filled with the songs and simple joys of the peasantry. A light breeze rustles through the grove. From afar come the strains of country revelry, until all the plain rings with dance and song.’

V Tábor – Mount Tábor, southern Bohemia, ‘place of the Transfiguration of Christ’; the Hussite Wars of the 15th century. ‘From their stronghold the Czech Protestants, persuaded by the truth of their beliefs, drive back their enemies. The Hussite battle-hymn Are ye not the Warriors of God? symbolises the uncompromising resistance with which the Hussites defended their right to the truth as they conceived it. The period of Bohemia’s power and greatness.’

VI Blanik – ‘the Hussite heroes (alternatively an army of knights led by St Wenceslas, Duke of Bohemia, 10th century) sleep within Mount Blanik, waiting for the time when their land will need them again. The Hussite chorale from Tábor joins at the end with the opening theme of Vyšehrad - the final apotheosis of a resurrected people and their future happiness and glory’.*

(* Précis descriptions adapted and combined from Vilém Zemanek (1914) and František Bartoš (1951)).

Performance times for the complete cycle range from Talich’s brisk but imposing 73 minutes (1941) to Harnoncourt’s extreme 84 minutes (2001). Most, however, come home naturally at around the 75 minute mark (Ančerl, 1963). At 79 minutes Doráti’s 1956 mono version, now released for the first time on CD, compares loosely with Talich’s original 1929 HMV Czech Philharmonic recording. Depending on which transfer of 78s you listen to – my reference is Ward Marston’s Koch International Classics Legacy edition, 3-7032-2 H1, this is five minutes slower than Talich’s 1954 Supraphon re-make on Supraphon 11 1896-2. Kubelík’s emotional return to the post-‘velvet revolution’ Prague Spring of May 1990 times at 78 minutes. Overall timings, though, tell but a superficial part of the story. More critical are the internal differences, phrasing, rubato, orchestral balancing, orchestral sound - different traditions producing different blends and emphases - and characterisation. As historic performances go, my preferred Má Vlast readings remain Talich (1929, 1954), Ančerl (1963, Supraphon 3661), and Kubelík (1990, Supraphon 111208). There is nothing to beat their distinctively blended Czech sound with their warm strings, strident, rasping brass, mellow flutes, rustic woodwind reeds, ruminatively folk-like in solos, nasally present in tuttis. They also offer attacking rhythms poised on the edge, vocal lines finely graded, playful yet deliberated dance steps, voluptuous climaxes, and expressive rubati. Talich’s 1929 string portamenti bring added period intensity, melodies swooping Mahler-like to their apexes. All, too, are pre-occupied with the dramatic firing of Smetana’s intentions, with integrating episodes within larger-term structures. There is nothing remotely trivial or picture post-card-suggestive about these accounts.

In neither Doráti’s mono nor (1986) stereo overviews, both with the Concertgebouw, do I find anything indispensable. Listening to his 1956 recording, I want more affection and suppleness, more passion than passage. His insistent, unsmiling way with rhythm, and his inclination to isolate rather than blend the internal sections of each poem - through sign-posted rits and over-long pauses, for instance - creates ultimately an un-subtle characterisation. And while the theatre can be highly charged, it draws essentially on the hard Slavic imagery and drive of the Liszt or Tchaikovsky tone-poems rather than Bohemian pliancy. Smetana’s Hussite knights turned into Cossack horsemen, his flirtatious polkas into whip-lashed Russian dances, the bronzed cupolas of Vyšehrad and Tábor into Kremlin domes.

The appended table compares the timings per poem of (chronologically) Talich, Doráti and Ančerl.† More noteworthy than the obvious – that in I, II and VI Doráti is faster than Talich, in III-V slower; that, like Ančerl, he creates a tension curve of progressive quickening (I-III), then broadening (IV-VI) - is the relationship between Tábor and Blanik. Talich sees the former, nearly three minutes quicker, almost as an upbeat to the apotheosis of the latter. Relatively, Ančerl - followed by Kubelík - also thinks of it in this way, albeit less extremely and favours the timing balance advocated in the published Czech edition. Doráti takes a different approach. Slowing down Tábor (by over 13%), fractionally speeding up Blanik, he in effect creates a pair of closing edifices weighted similarly. With stops pulled out for both - edging towards bombast - over-insistence on their common D minor polarity, and little attempt to variegate the shared compositionally/interpretatively awkward finish and start of one into the other, the result is an aurally-fatiguing anti-climax.


I Vyšehrad E flat major

1929

Talich

15:36

1956

Doráti

14:10


+9.2%


1963

Ančerl

14:14


+8.8%


II Vltava E minor-major

1929

Talich

12:17

1956

Doráti

11:48


+3.9%


1963

Ančerl

12:28


-1.5%


III Šarka A minor

1929

Talich

10:33

1956

Doráti

10:52


-3%


1963

Ančerl

09:48


+7.1%


IV From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields G minor-major

1929

Talich

12:46

1956

Doráti

12:52


-0.8%


1963

Ančerl

12:13


+4.3%


V Tábor D minor

1929

Talich

12:19

1956

Doráti

13:58


-13.4%


1963

Ančerl

12:16


+0.4%


VI Blanik D minor-major

1929

Talich

15:02

1956

Doráti

14:48


+1.6%


1963

Ančerl

13:41


+9%

(† Timings indexed according to performance not inlay-card duration (the latter accurate only in the case of Ančerl).

Discipline and orchestral detail always featured high in Doráti’s priorities, witness his early stereo Mercury recordings; for example the LSO Liszt and Enesco Rhapsodies (Living Presence 000450036). Here, however, he’s not so authoritative, maybe because, unlike the Czech Phil, the Concertgebouw, right from the harp(s) at the onset of Vyšehrad, don’t seem that confident of the notes. Chording is not always exact, and things like the rapid fugal string passages of From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields lack precision of ensemble and pointing of entries. In Vltava, the syncopated (accented) flutes of the Peasant Wedding (bars 153ff), so understated yet magically, hypnotically, present in the Ančerl recording, so nostalgically placed by Talich, simply disappear, the music itself transformed into something of a clog-dance. Later the St John Rapids section is curiously reined back - nature tamed by man. The inherent beauty of the cycle, music of Smetana’s years of deafness, never disappears, of course – but only rarely is it enhanced by anything Doráti does: for instance the upfront trumpet prominence in the mix at 1:25 of Vyšehrad. Physically exciting as some of the tuttis must have been in the Concertgebouw acoustic of the time, the bottom line is that this is an indifferently-recorded performance which will probably only be sought after by Doráti collectors, or as an also-ran in comparative surveys of Má Vlast. Mono Talich is much more involving, terrifying and terrific even. Stereo Ančerl is more of an eloquently moulded benchmark. The lack of grandeur in Vltava, the gabbled clarinet doloroso quasi recitando of Šarka, the ordinariness of the string-droned woodwind conversation comprising the haunting F major Più Allegro ma non molto in Blanik, typify a catalogue of shortcomings I could happily do without.

The CD re-mastering does little to de-constrict the sound, with generally dulled upper frequencies and a congested bass end. Tape drop-outs mar Vyšehrad (3:20), From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields (10:42), Tábor (8:17), and Blanik (0:02).

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