Václav Smetáček (1906-1986) was principal
oboist with the Czech Philharmonic between 1930 and 1933. In
1942 he became principal conductor of the FOK orchestra - the
abbreviation stood for Film, Opera, and Concert - which, in
1952, became known as the Prague Symphony Orchestra. In all
he conducted the band for 30 years, between 1942 and 1972.
He recorded first on 78s, and plentifully on LPs. In the main
I suppose one associates him with Czech music of the late nineteenth
and early to mid twentieth centuries, concerto accompaniments,
a lot of choral music, marches, and a tactful, but hardly extensive
exploration of contemporary Czech music.
I’m not aware of any commercial recordings of Shostakovich
from him. The leading Czech example of the Tenth Symphony is
from Ančerl, whose Czech Philharmonic recording of 1956
still packs a punch. I don’t know if Smetáček
knew of the recording or studied it - it was with his old orchestra
after all - but he had taken it into his repertoire by the time
he came to tour, which he did often. This particular example
comes from London in March 1968, five months before the Russians
marched into Prague.
The Royal Festival Hall is a notoriously unforgiving acoustic
which especially at this time had a problematic, dry clarity.
Nevertheless with canny and practised microphone placement this
recording captures fidelity without undue spotlighting. It also
captures the full complement of strings that the Prague orchestra
took with them. Their playing is especially notable, but so
too is the poised and tonally warm playing of the wind section,
and in particular that of the clarinet principal, whose chalumeau
playing is especially commendable. There’s plenty of nuance
in all of the orchestra’s phrasing, in the hammering out
of the DSCH motif, and in the increasingly taut accumulation
of detail in the first movement - albeit it’s not as driven
as Kondrashin’s slightly later studio recording in Moscow.
Kondrashin is a notch faster in all movements but given that
Smetáček’s tempi are uniformly consistent
and that his assurance is unquestioned, that is not such a consideration.
The Allegro second movement isn’t as savage as some, but
the punctuatory, brusque brass and chattering winds still sound
formidable, and the percussion registers viscerally too. The
Allegretto is desolate sounding, and very much aligned to the
Russian tradition, in this performance, more in the tradition
of Tchaikovsky than I think I can remember hearing it before.
The finale unleashes the spirit of the dance, in a driving,
tense way, and unleashes also a storm of applause.
This fine performance, extremely well captured in sound, is
a most worthwhile addition to the discography of the Tenth.