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CD: Orchestral Concerts

Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-75)
Symphony No.10 in E minor Op.93 (1953) [47:23]
Prague Symphony Orchestra/Václav Smetáček
rec. 6 March 1968, Royal Festival Hall, London

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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.
Jonathan Woolf 


















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