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Bedřich SMETANA (1824-1884)
Orchestral Works - Volume 2

The Bartered Bride: Overture, Polka (Act I Finale), Furiant, Skocna (Dance of the Comedians) (1865, rev. 1869) [20:21]
The Secret: Overture (1877-78) [6:31]
Libuše: Prelude (1881) [9:38]
The Devil’s Wall: Prelude, Infernal Dance (1882) [6:54]
The Brandenburgers in Bohemia: Prelude, Act I Ballet (1863) [3:08]
The Kiss: Overture (1876) [5:50]
Dalibor: Entr’acte (1868) [6:05]
The Two Widows: Overture, Prelude to Act II, Polka from Act II (1874) [13:14]
BBC Philharmonic/Gianandrea Noseda
rec. Studio 7, BBC Broadcasting House, Manchester, UK, 4, 7-8 October 2008. DDD
CHANDOS CHAN10518 [72:33] 
Experience Classicsonline

As noted above, this is the second volume of a new Chandos series of the orchestral works of Bedřich Smetana. The first volume, which I have not heard, contains the composer’s less well-known symphonic poems, while the one under review is made up of opera excerpts. As with the first volume, the great majority of the works presented here will be unknown to most listeners. Although Smetana’s operas are performed often in the
Czech Republic, only The Bartered Bride is performed with any regularity outside the composer’s homeland. The four excerpts from that opera that appear on this disc are probably the best known of all of Smetana’s works, except for perhaps the Moldau (Vltava) from Má Vlast. For the other selections, Noseda more or less has the field to himself. How do his Bartered Bride excerpts stack up against the formidable competition? Well, first of all, they are very well performed here and recorded with much brilliance. That said, there is something missing, some element of earthiness that can be found in almost any Czech recording. Comparing them with the same selections from the recording of the opera by Košler and his Czech forces on Supraphon shows the superiority of the native Czechs who bring out the sheer charm of the music in the way that, for all the virtuosity of the BBC Philharmonic, Noseda cannot or does not. His performances are certainly exciting enough, but also a little slick. There is one feature in the Skocna that I find particularly irritating: the cymbal and bass-drum crash before the string theme at 0:04 and 0:12 and later in the piece as well. Before hearing this performance, I was not at all aware that there was such a part in the score. On the Košler recording it is barely audible and comes on (or immediately before) the first note in the strings. Noseda has a very loud crash and then a slight pause before launching into the theme. No matter how often I have listened to this I find it overdone and unnecessary. 

The remainder of this disc contains music that many fans of Smetana will rarely, if ever, have heard. With few exceptions, the works are stamped with Smetana’s identity and bring real pleasure. They whet one’s appetite to hear the whole operas from which they are taken. The Overture to The Secret is very dramatic with a fugal section in the middle. The Prelude to Libuše is a celebratory affair that begins with brass fanfares accompanied by timpani. Czech music specialist Jan Smaczny in his excellent booklet note accompanying the CD likens this fanfare to the introduction opening Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass - presumably the Úvod movement of the published version and not the Intrada of the reconstructed original. I can certainly see where he might think that, as I have thought the opening of Dvořák’s Te Deum also anticipated that great twentieth-century choral work. It must be something in the Czech blood! After this, the selections from The Devil’s Wall may seem less consequential, but are nevertheless colorful and interesting. While the short Prelude and Act I Ballet from The Brandenburgers in Bohemia, Smetana’s first opera, do seem like small potatoes after the previous extracts, the Overture to The Kiss more than makes up for any shortcomings in that earlier work. This is the Smetana we all know and love from The Bartered Bride and Má Vlast with its gleeful piccolo part before ending with music reminiscent of The Moldau. The Entr’acte from Dalibor, on the other hand, is very subdued and begins with a cello solo that would not be out of place in Weber’s Invitation to the Dance. The CD concludes with three delightful selections from The Two Widows. Although all three are vintage Smetana, each also reminds me of another composer: The Overture is rather reminiscent of both Schumann and Mendelssohn, while the Prelude to Act II has a bit of Gilbert and Sullivan about it. The second theme of the Polka, which once heard, lingers — you’ll find yourself humming it — is a close cousin to Johann Strauss Sr.’s Radetzky March. This is not to diminish the authenticity of any of this music, which will raise one’s spirits on the darkest of days and help to keep a smile on your face. Credit for this is not only due to Smetana’s genius, but also to the way Noseda and the BBC Philharmonic carry it off. Unlike the familiar music from The Bartered Bride, they are not up against any real competition here. They impart a real joyousness to this music and the recorded sound is up to Chandos’ usual high standards. 

I can, thus, heartily welcome this disc especially for the unfamiliar works it contains. Even without the excerpts from The Bartered Bride this CD is a worthy addition to the Smetana discography. 

Leslie Wright




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