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.
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.
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.
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.