A few nights every year hold a truly special place in the classical
music calendar: the last night of the Proms, New Year’s in Vienna,
opening night at the Prague Spring festival. The festival begins
each year with a performance of Bedrich Smetana’s national epic,
Má Vlast (My Country). The Czechs are lucky, aren’t
they? What other nation celebrates, every year, its greatest
musical epic? What other nation is even blessed with an epic
so majestic, so wrapped up in its country’s identity? The
Enigma Variations, Finlandia? They cannot hold a
candle to this.
The Prague Spring opening night has historically been one filled
with great memories and moments of timeless beauty; maybe longest-lasting
of all was the year when, in the ruins of the old Soviet order,
Rafael Kubelík returned to his homeland after decades of exile,
and returned to the podium after years of retirement, to lead
a Má Vlast which Supraphon has preserved for the ages.
This CD presents the 2010 live Má Vlast, played by the
Prague Philharmonia under the leadership of 28-year-old Jakub
Hruša. Hruša is the youngest conductor to ever open the festival,
by a fairly wide margin; in 2009, for example, 65-year-old Antoni
Wit was a last-minute replacement for 71-year-old Neeme Jarvi.
And yet Hruša’s interpretation is not that of a headstrong young
firebrand; instead it is measured, intelligent, sometimes expansive,
and very sensitively done. Through coincidence, in fact, this
interpretation resembles no rival’s so much as Antoni Wit’s.
The Prague Philharmonia is a chamber orchestra - indeed, its
name in many languages is “Prague Chamber Philharmonic” - so
this is necessarily a more intimate Má Vlast. The orchestra
simply lacks the firepower to make a grand gesture of the climax
of Vyšehrad, and frankly sounds a little thin and overmatched
at the end of Tábor. But the trade-off comes in intimacy and
breathing room, for the players treat the score with great affection.
The opening harp solo is suitably rhapsodic, the violins’ introduction
of the big tune otherworldly. Vltava (The Moldau) features some
haunting flute work, especially in the central nocturne, where
the clarity of the chamber orchestra - and the uniquely Czech
palette of instrumental colors - affords us a wealth of hypnotic
woodwind solos. Thankfully, Hruša, like Antoni Wit, feels little
need to rush through this movement, viewing the trip down the
Moldau as a fantasy rather than a drama. He could have luxuriated
a bit more, even, to be frank.
Šarka brings both lyricism and electric energy to the table,
with some heroic violin and brass playing at the end; From Bohemia’s
Fields and Groves is rather run-of-the-mill. But it is a special
pleasure to report that the final two movements, the hardest
to bring off, are mostly successes. Tábor and Blaník, as Hruša
explains in an interview in the booklet, can be repetitive and
structurally clumsy, with frequent tempo changes, and to cap
it all off Blaník ends with some of the hardest music to play
in the whole cycle. As Hruša says, “When Blaník comes to an
end … everyone feels an immense sense of relief.” But they can
feel more than relief here, for there is a definite sense of
summation and of joy. The final polka episodes go especially
well. On the other hand, Wit more powerfully evokes the opening
of the piece in the close and makes us more aware of the fact
that Smetana’s wandering cycle has come home at last, to somewhere
surprisingly close to but unmistakably different from the place
where it started.
Especially given how picky I can be about my Má Vlast
(last year a Tomáš Netopil/Prague SO offering fell short), I
am very happy to recommend this one. Next month BIS releases
a new recording with the Malaysian Philharmonic and Claus Peter
Flor which is at least on a level with Hruša’s and probably
superior, but much faster (by four minutes), so the pair make
an interesting contrast. I hope to be reviewing the Flor disc
Meanwhile, the present recording is a document of yet another
great Prague Spring, and a considerable success on disc, too.
The live audience makes nearly no intrusion until the minute-plus
of applause included on the final track. Sound quality is slightly
vague at first but it takes shape quickly with a volume jolt
and/or a switch to headphones. As mentioned, the clarity and
ability to hear every instrument are great assets.
This, then, can join Kubelík, Wit, Ancerl and Neumann on the
shelves of Czech music collectors, maybe not as a particularly
distinctive new reference recording but as a distinguished record
of where Má Vlast interpretation stands today. And Jakub
Hruša is still very young indeed. If he continues to develop
and mature at this rate and with this kind of integrity, the
Prague Spring organizers may well invite him back in 2050.