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Bedřich SMETANA (1824-1884) Má vlast (1874-79)
Hradec Králove Philharmonic Orchestra /Marek Štilec
rec. Hradec Králove, Czech Republic, June 2015 ARCO DIVA UP 0180 2131 [76:49]
Absolutely heart-warming to see the Hradec Kralové Philharmonic on disc in Smetana’s most famous piece. Hradec Kralové is a pleasant city that on a personal level I pass through en route to Náchod from Prague on a (fairly) regular basis. The cover image, incidentally, is of Vyšehrad in Prague and not of anywhere in Hradec Kralové.
There is no doubting the enthusiasm of the playing here: try the climactic moments of the opening “Vyšehrad”. Smetana’s sometimes top-heavy orchestration is played with a native band’s aplomb, a conviction that casts all doubts before it. The most famous movement is of course “Vltava”, its main theme affectionately shaped here. There is an occasional tendency to sag, emanating from Štilec’s direction, and the recording is not kind on some of the orchestral timbres (horns and trumpets primarily); yet the overtly dramatic episodes do carry weight. This drama is heard most overtly in “Šarka” with its depiction of women’s war. Steeped in Czech legend, the music emerges as a tone-poem of Lisztian breadth: this is the most effective performance on this disc, the long lines aching for resolution. Štilec certainly paces this movement well. If “From Bohemia’s Fields and Groves” again has the occasional sag, there is no doubting the orchestra’s enthusiasm for the pastoral dances the music invokes.
Gravitas finds its way into the account of “Tábor”, the panel that is based on a hymn, “Ye who are God’s Warriors!” and whose narrative reaches over into the final panel, “Blaník,” wherein the Czech nation is resurrected (Blaník is a legendary mountain that houses knights and warriors who await a call to rescue the Czech Fatherland). But again, there are structural sags in “Blaník” and the final peroration just falls short. A special mention, though, for the solo wind players in this final tone-poem, the piping oboe in particular.
Avid Musicwebians will know the reviews of Štilec’s Fibich recordings on Naxos (Symphony No. 1: reviewed by Rob Maynard, and a touch less enthusiastically by Nick Barnard; Symphony No. 2 reviewed by Paul Corfield Godfrey). Wonderful that Štilec, as one of the younger generation of Czech conductors, so enthusiastically presents his home repertoire (apparently there are to be 15-20 discs of works of 18th century Czech composers working in Vienna released on Naxos). But in Má vlast, he remains a rough diamond.
This will not replace the cornerstone performances of this piece: my colleague Jonathan Woolf rightly mentions Ančerl and Kubelík in his review of this release. But it does contain delights in and of itself. It is also beautifully presented and includes detailed booklet notes.