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Bedřich SMETANA (1824-1844)
Má Vlast (1879): Vyšehrad [14:42]; Vltava [11:56]; Šárka [9:59]; Z českých luhů a hájů [12:32]; Tábor [12:40]; Blaník [14:26]
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Libor Pešek
rec. Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, May 1989
VIRGIN CLASSICS 5221292 [76:29] 
Experience Classicsonline

With the opening chords of this CD it is clear that you are in for a treat.  As the Liverpool harpist brings out the opening notes of the Vyšehrad motif we marvel anew at Smetana’s instinct for a tune that goes straight to the patriotic heart, but it is the shaping of the theme that makes it stand out.  Libor Pešek, clearly at home in this music, shows that Smetana is in no safer hands than those of a Czech conductor. 

Má Vlast’s merits don’t need repeating here.  What is worth saying is that this hymn of love to the Czech homeland here sounds fresh, beautiful and exciting.  There is an inherent sense of majesty in Pešek’s interpretation, from the grandeur of Vyšehrad right through to the climax of Blaník.  He evokes the mighty castle atop Vyšehrad with a sense of awe, even from those opening harp arpeggios, through to the soulful appearance of the theme on strings and then full orchestra.  Vltava bustles along nicely and with a refreshing sense of contrast between the different episodes.  Pešek keeps up the sense of pace, even in the moonlight episode, which can often seem all too sleepy.  One of his finest effects occurs at the end of this movement when he slows up the tempo dramatically just before the reappearance of the Vyšehrad theme.  Slightly willful, perhaps, but surprisingly effective.  There is a similar drive to the main theme of Šárka, with a fiery conclusion as the unsuspecting men all bite the dust. 

From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields has a pleasant sense of bustle about it, though with a fine feeling of space too.  Pešek also gives an appropriate sense of drive to the rhythms of the village festivities towards the end.  The heavier movements, Tábor and Blaník, are perhaps a little less successful, missing the air and good humour of the earlier movements, though Pešek is still good at conjuring up the air of bleak grandeur appropriate to the memory of the Hussites that Smetana celebrates. 

The sound on the recording is Virgin/EMI’s finest.  It has bloom and atmosphere, but details are not lost: listen out for the stubborn piccolo in Šárka!  It is helped that this was the first recording undertaken by Pešek as the principal conductor of the RLPO.  There is a feeling of warmth and affection that shines through these performances, not just of the conductor for his national music, but for the conductor with his own orchestra, still getting to know one another but seeming to like what they find. 

All told then this is a very strong contender.  The only thing that beats a Czech conductor for this music, however, is a Czech conductor with a Czech orchestra, and Kubelik with the Czech Philharmonic still take the palm.  Don’t ignore Pešek, however, especially at this price.

Simon Thompson


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