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.
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.
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.
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
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:
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”.
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.
rewarding and recommendable disc: the symphony in particular
is given its due in a highly involving reading.
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