Bedrich SMETANA (1824-1884)
Z ceských luhu a háju [11:58]
Prague Symphony Orchestra/Tomáš Netopil
rec. live, 28 October 2008, Smetana Hall, Prague, Czech Republic
FOK 0001–2 031 [72:30]
I can still remember, in detail, the first four times I heard “The Moldau”. Smetana’s masterful little tone poem became my single favorite classical work the very first time I heard it, on a Canadian radio broadcast when I was still in my mid-teenage years. It has remained my favorite bit of music ever since. I was sitting in my room doing algebra homework when the announcer introduced “The Moldau” and the music started flowing into my headphones. I put my pencil down, entranced, unable to solve any more problems as Smetana’s flow of melody was running its course. It was a transformative experience, almost hypnotic.
The second time was perhaps a year later, in the middle of summer, in a small tourist town in Michigan. My family and I were rummaging through an antique shop, testing rumpled old chairs and examining cookbooks from decades past. A tiny old record player held a 78 record of “Smetana's The Moldau,” as played by the Victor Symphony Orchestra, or perhaps the Columbia Symphony, or some similar radio band, conducted by a name I had never heard of before and have never seen since. I feigned interest in the device until the shopkeeper noticed my attention and offered to demonstrate how it worked by playing the record. Then, for maybe two minutes, I was again in bliss: grainy, monaural, bliss, a wash of old-Hollywood violins playing the most unearthly melody I'd ever heard. As suddenly as it began, the music was over; I stood around the record player awkwardly for some time afterwards, hoping the shopkeeper would flip the disc over and let me hear the other side, but too timid to ask. For the rest of the day, as we left the antique shop and strolled down the town's main street, the sound of violins playing that heavenly melody echoed in my head, over and over, until I had the big tune memorized, but was driven to distraction by the mystery of what came next.
The third time was sometime within a year, in a hallway at my school; between classes, a teacher had the television on and it was playing “The Moldau”. I had a class to go to in another building, but froze outside this room's door, taking in as much of the music as I could; finally, with just a minute before the bell, I awoke from my reverie and ran out of the building. The fourth time was just a week later, when I was thinking about that ghostly music again, wishing that I could hear it again. In hope, I turned on the radio, and, miracle of miracles, there it was.
For years, I refused to buy a recording of Má Vlast, fearful that the magic would fade with familiarity. Happily, the joy has instead spread to the rest of Smetana’s suite, but I still listen sparingly, still afraid, still not wanting the fantasy land to which Smetana transports us to become too known. My favorite recordings are those which manage, instantly, to pull me into that other world, to make me feel, for an hour or so, like a kid in a trance again. This new recording by Tomáš Netopil and the Prague Symphony Orchestra does not quite reach that exalted level all the way through, but it does have the classic magic in parts.
Maybe the most successful movement is the very first, “Vyšehrad,” the old castle, taken at a somewhat swift but very fluid pace, alert to the music’s drama and beauty, flowing with the same radiance as the famous “Moldau”. The opening harp solo told me immediately that this would be a performance to savor; over the work’s course, Netopil takes a flexible approach to tempo which allows the music to chart its glorious path to maximum effect.
Unfortunately, “Vltava” the Moldau itself, was not quite at the same level; here I prefer radically slow tempi, the better to allow the strings to sing that glorious big tune, the better to allow me to shut my eyes, sit back, and slip into the current. The other episodes, too, benefit from a slower basic tempo; the rustic wedding scene can be allowed a greater freedom of rhythm, the nocturne is a joy as the woodwinds mimic moonlight reflecting off the waters, and the reprise of the main tune can be effectively carried out at a tempo just a hair faster than the original, to signal the coming of the rapids.
My favorite performance of this movement is Antoni Wit’s epic on Naxos, clocking in at 13:14; Netopil’s (at 11:20) left me feeling a little cheated. This new account is not without merits, however: I was impressed by the phenomenal playing of the Prague flautists, who are happily quite distinct in the sound-picture during the opening duet and who acquit themselves especially well in the gloriously detailed writing of the central nocturne. Indeed, many of the flute lines I heard in the sixth minute are details I had not heard anywhere else. The flautists’ contributions are enough to bring me back to this otherwise just acceptable “Moldau.”
“Šárka”, the first of the tone-poems to follow a clear narrative, lacks the supercharged virtuosity of some rival recordings, but this performance still left me satisfied. The clarinet solo near the end spotlights the unique timbre of the Prague wind tradition, and the ensuing tempest is an eye-opener. “From Bohemia’s Fields and Groves”, by contrast, is somewhat less satisfactory. Again, Netopil leads a performance over a minute faster than those by Antoni Wit and Václav Neumann, and it is to his detriment, as the movement’s repetition really becomes obvious at the faster pace. I also think that the sense of home-coming we should feel upon arriving at the movement’s climax is not present in as fast a performance as this; we don’t feel like we’ve arrived at something momentous because the climax just sounds like a louder version of the rest of the movement.
“Tábor” and “Blaník” are generally considered the hardest movements to get right, and the least popular among audiences. Netopil’s speedy approach actually works very well here; after the slow introduction and series of chorales which opens “Tábor”, the main movement explodes out of the gate at 5:30, in a veritable storm of virtuosic playing. “Blaník,” too, features its fair share of heroism, and this time Netopil and his orchestra get the buildup to the final climax exactly right.
In sum, this is a fine performance of Má Vlast which I am happy to have, aided by very good sound quality and made more impressive because it is a live recording made on a single night, presumably (judging by the occasional wrong note) without any later studio corrections. That said, for those whose passion for Smetana’s music does not run as deeply as mine, or for those looking for their first or second disc of this cycle, this is not a mandatory purchase. Netopil and the Prague Symphony Orchestra are nearly unbeatable in “Vysehrad”, “Tábor”, and “Blaník”, but for definitive performances of Má Vlast, turn to older Czech recordings by the likes of Václav Neumann, Rafael Kubelík and Karel Ancerl, or to Antoni Wit’s recording on Naxos, which still contains the most luxurious “Moldau” I know.
A fine performance which I am happy to have … see Full Review