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Bedřich SMETANA (1824-1884)
Má Vlast [81:11]
Bamberg Symphony/Jakub Hrůša
rec. Konzerthalle Bamberg, Joseph-Keilberth-Saal, Germany, September 2015, March 2016
Stereo/Surround 5.1 reviewed in surround.
Notes in English, French and German.
TUDOR 7196 SACD [81:11]

Smetana composed Má Vlast between 1874 and 1879. Each symphonic poem was premiered separately and the entire cycle was premiered in 1882. Vyšehrad (The High Castle) depicts the castle in Prague, which was the seat of the early Czech kings. Vltava is a picture of the landscape and life around the River Vltava, from its two sources to its confluence with the Elbe. Šárka tells the story of the warrior maiden Šárka. Z českých luhů a hájů depicts the beautiful Czech countryside. Tábor is about the city at the centre of the Hussite Wars and finally Blaník describes the mountain containing a warrior army, which will come to the aid of the kingdom in times of need. The last two pieces really need to be performed together, because the end of one is musically the same as the beginning of the other. Jakub Hrůša leaves no more than a moment's pause between the two to emphasize this unity.

This disc has proved something of a wake-up call. It drew my attention back to a masterwork by a composer, who is not often heard in our concert halls, simply because he wrote comparatively little purely orchestral music. It also shows that a performance does not have to tread the well worn path to be convincing. Jakub Hrůša takes longer over this cycle of six symphonic poems than any other recording I have been able to check, including Hrůša's own made in 2010 for Supraphon. The long and fascinating interview with the conductor contained in the booklet deals directly with the issue of length. Basically, says Hrůša, it just came out like that because of his attention to detail and phrasing, whilst working with his new Bamberg orchestra. As a reviewer I heard and greatly enjoyed this disc twice before considering comparisons. It was only after hearing Václav Smetáček's 1984 discs with the Czech Philharmonic that I realised Hrůša was slower, slower indeed than anyone else. It says much for the quality of this new performance that it lost absolutely nothing in terms of drama.

Hrůša describes Má Vlast as "an unusually precious work" in that the six symphonic poems, of which it is comprised, are an organic unity. Themes are shared throughout, and hearing each one within the context of the whole enhances their individual emotional impact. For Czechs it is of course almost a national anthem and is performed regularly at festivals. Along with most music-lovers I have heard, Vltava repeatedly and From Bohemian Fields and Groves (the translation on the disc) occasionally, for my entire concertgoing life, barely ever have I heard a complete cycle. The present disc proves Hrůša right and since Tudor have allowed a very long 81 minutes onto one SACD, there is no additional cost involved in continuous listening to this expansive and glorious performance. Oddly, all that said, this is actually the result of two widely separated recording sessions, tied in with performances in Bamberg of the first three and then the second three works. We will be able to test for ourselves the full impact when the Philharmonia and Hrůša perform all six together in London in October this year (2017).

Dave Billinge

Previous review: John Quinn (Recording of the Month)



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