Bedrich SMETANA (1824-1884)
Má Vlast [78:53]
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Jakub Hruša
rec. live 13-14 May 2010, Rudolfinum, Prague, Czech Republic
SUPRAPHON SU 4032-2 [78:53]

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 soon.

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.

Brian Reinhart

A mature account, lacking fire but intimate and with hypnotic wind solos.