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Bedřich SMETANA (1824-1884)
Moldau – Overtures and Dances
Má Vlast (My Fatherland): II. Vltava (Die Moldau) [11:44]
Libuse – Overture [8:29]
Dvě vdovy (The Two Widows): Overture [7:07]; Polka [3:21]
Hubička (The Kiss): Overture [6:10]
Prodaná nevěsta (The Bartered Bride): Overture [6:31]; Polka ‘Pojd se, holka’ [4:37]; Furiant [2:09]; Skočná (The Dance of the Comedians) [5:55]
The Cleveland Orchestra Chorus (Polka)
The Cleveland Orchestra/Christoph von Dohnányi
rec. 1993-1994, Severance Hall, Cleveland ,USA
Presto CD
DECCA 444 867-2 [56:59]

The first thing you notice is the beautiful, mellow sound of the flutes and the all-round depth and clarity of the digital sound here. There is a reason why Vltava/Die Moldau is such a popular concert piece – it is simply exquisite music and was, I think, the first orchestral piece to engage my teenage brain when I was experimenting playing bits from my parents’ Reader’s Digest “Festival of Light Classical Music” box set of 12 LPs. (I would say it was perfect were it not the fact that I always have to cut off the end before those two crass, crashing chords; I want my river to float serenely into the sunset – and I have since discovered that I am not alone in my insistence…)

The sequence of scenes in this most pictorial of “tone poems” is expertly executed by von Dohnányi and the Cleveland, although I wonder whether the last, triumphant section is not taken a tad too fast.

In truth, apart from Má Vlast, The Bartered Bride and his wonderful string quartet “From My Life”, we don’t hear a lot of Smetana’s music these days, but the overture to Libuse is a really grand, celebratory piece with lots of cymbal crashes, blaring brass and thundering timpani – not very memorable but great fun and the only part of the work Smetana would allow to played outside of some national celebration – hence, although it was written in 1872, the opera’s premiere was the opening of the Czech National Theatre nearly a decade later.

I had not heard the music from either The Two Widows or The Kiss before but it is typically exuberant; it is always remarkable to hear how upbeat Smetana’s later music is, given that for the last ten years of his life he was so afflicted by syphilis and consequent deafness. It is not profound music but it is unfailingly witty and cheerful. However, there is no doubt that the four excerpts from The Bartered Bride are a cut above musically. Dohnányi and the Cleveland attack the overture with invigorating daring, playing it pretty much as fast as the bank of first violins even in an orchestra of the first rank could handle the semi-quavers - and the result is frenetically thrilling. Dohnányi plays engagingly with the rhythm and dynamics of the Polka and the entry of the chorus comes as a startling but delightful surprise. The brilliance of the Furiant reminds us of Smetana’s fellow-Czech composer Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances and the concluding Skočná is testimony to the virtuosity of the Cleveland Orchestra.

Ralph Moore

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