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Bedřich SMETANA (1824-1884)
Má Vlast – a cycle of symphonic poems (1874-1879)
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Václav Talich
rec. Dvořák Hall, Rudolfinum, Prague, June and July 1954. ADD
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.111237 [75:22]


Talich’s Má Vlast is self-recommending but which of the three versions should you have, if you have to limit yourself to one? The 1929 recording preserves the Czech Philharmonic in its inter-war glory in its home town, not on a London tour. The 1941 traversal is a defiant paean, fast and lithe, and its Biddulph restoration was a triumph. However for most this 1954 cycle is the one that best reflects Talich’s evocation of the national character and myth, that is captured in the best sound, and that finds the conductor at his most musically colloquial. It also had the advantage of having been recorded in the Rudolfinum, the previous recordings having been made in the Trades Union House (1929) and the National Theatre (1941).

The performance has glories almost without number. The finely focused harp and the succulence of the strings are two of the more obvious. The nobility of the brass and the crispness of rhythm are their equals in this lexicon of musical perception. The string playing in Vyšehrad is intense, the verdant naturalness of Talich’s unfolding of Vltava glorious. He may have been matched, indeed surpassed, in sheer voltage among native conductors by Kubelík and Jeremiáš, but Talich’s steadier hold is magnificent in its own different way. Šarka has power but also absolute clarity of articulation. From Bohemia’s Woods and Forests – the Czech title Z českých luhů a hájů resonates buoyantly as the English doesn’t – is notable for the precision and unanimity of the high lying first violin passages and for the tangy lower winds, for the bassoon passages and the basses, for the whole gamut of folkloric inflection. Tabor’s powerful brass and percussion are testimony to the revitalised standards of the post war orchestra. But there’s also deftness and clarity here – try 3.40 in. Those Bachian and organ cadences sound massively well in Talich’s hands. Sweeping grandeur drives Blaník to a heroic peroration.

Still, you knew all this. Naxos usually discloses its source material but not here. But there’s little noticeable difference between this transfer and the Supraphon CD I have – which is the one that ante-dates the Talich edition set and is thus no longer in print. Without leaving the Czech Lands your essential “native son” Má Vlast performances from this sort of generation include the three Talich recordings, the 1961 Ančerl in the Supraphon Gold Edition, and the earlier Otakar Jeremiáš (Prague Radio Symphony, 1943 in a cloudy LYS transfer). Kubelík’s pre-war incomplete set with the Czech Philharmonic is magnificent but only an ancillary recommendation because of what we unfortunately lack. His later recordings naturally all merit collection. For the Talich collector however this 1954 set is glorious and the one that remains the most generally recommendable.

Jonathan Woolf




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