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Bedřich SMETANA (1824-1884)
Festive Symphony in E Major, Op. 6 [42:55]
Prodaná nevesta (The Bartered Bride) (excerpts) [20:55]
Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra/Darrell Ang
rec. Grosser Sendesaal, Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg, 2016
NAXOS 8.573672 [63:58]

The Festive Symphony is a genuinely occasional piece of music, though it is Smetana’s only symphony. Written in 1853-1854, it is a celebration of a particular event, though the oddity is that it is celebrating an event that never actually happened. It represents the hope that the Emperor Franz Josef would become King of Bohemia following his marriage to Elizabeth of Bavaria (‘Sisi’) in 1854. Such a move would have appealed to Czech nationalists – Hungary already had a degree of authority and autonomy due to the Emperor’s crowned status as King of Hungary.

We often think of Franz Josef as the bewhiskered old man of the outbreak of the First World War, and it is difficult to recapture the excitement of his accession to the Empire in 1848. His uncle, Ferdinand V – described rather cruelly in the notes as ‘mentally deficient’, which is an overstatement (he suffered from chronic epilepsy and hydrocephaly) – abdicated, living out the remainder of his life in the Hradčany Castle in Prague, dying in 1875. Despite a reputation for conservatism, the young emperor was physically brave, immensely conscientious and hard-working, now married to a legendary – if rather vain and eventually tragic – beauty. The sense of optimism is palpable in this Festive Symphony.

The Imperial Anthem – familiar enough to non-Austrians! – appears first after the fanfares which commence the first movement; it returns in all other movements except the Scherzo, before appearing in full glory in the last pages of the Finale. Such patriotic material tends not to export well, and it is notable that in later life Smetana would programme only the Scherzo (a lively and enjoyable movement) in his concerts. Initial nationalist hope had given way to disappointment, and the personal tragedies that befell the composer in 1854 would make such optimism otiose.

The work overall, despite not being a great example of the mid-nineteenth century symphony, nevertheless is a well-formed piece. It follows classical models of a four-movement symphony, especially in the developed sonata form of the first movement, and there is careful working out of the themes throughout. There are many moments which foreshadow the Smetana of Má Vlast – despite its low opus number, this is more than an apprentice piece.

Darrell Ang and the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra take the sensible course of playing the rarely recorded work for all it is worth, with gusto and enthusiasm. This is now the first choice for this symphony, though there is little current alternative: Lothar Zagrosek with the ORF Symphony Orchestra at full price on Marco Polo 8.223120.

The Zagrosek recording has no coupling. On this cheaper Naxos disc, we have the Overture and three dances (Polka, Furiant and Dance of the Comedians) from The Bartered Bride. These dances were later additions after the first performance in 1866. The performances here are more than respectable and will give much delight, though I would have preferred to hear a lesser-known piece. Nonetheless, these are an enhancement to an enjoyable release, valuable for more than historical reasons.

Michael Wilkinson



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