Smetana: Ma Vlast (CD review)

Also, Dvorak: In Nature's Realm. Antal Dorati, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Newton Classics 8802073 (2-disc set).

Czech composer Bedrich Smetana (1824-1884), an intense nationalist, wrote the six symphonic poems known collectively as Ma Vlast (My Country or My Fatherland) between 1874 and 1879, ironically, following his having a nervous breakdown and going deaf. He dedicated the cycle of works to the city of Prague, the first two movements dealing with the sights and sounds of the city.

With Hungarian conductor Antal Dorati leading the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Newton Classics' current reissued Philips recording, we get spirited, red-blooded accounts of all six episodes of the score, with plenty of color and characterization. The performances perhaps lack something of the subtlety and stylishness of several rival versions, like those from Neumann (Berlin Classics), Kubelik (Supraphon), Berglund (EMI), Pesek (Virgin), and Wit (Naxos), but Dorati's energy, vivaciousness, animation, and warmth more than make up for any minor concerns.

The cycle begins with Vysehrad (1874), named after the venerable castle of Bohemian kings in Prague. Under Dorati, the music sounds beautifully smooth, lyrical, and Romantic yet well sprung, too, with finely articulated tensions and releases. Dorati perfectly judges the tempos throughout this segment, even if they are a tad faster than we usually hear. Still, the conductor works up a passionate response in the process.

Next up we hear Vltava (1874), which describes the river called in German the Moldau, and uses an old Czech folk tune as its principal theme. Smetana's original program notes tell us that the music traces the countryside the river runs through: meadows, forests, even conjuring up water nymphs along the way. This is the most-famous section of the work, and conductors often play it by itself; thus, you'll find quite a few more separate recordings of Vltava (or The Moldau) than of the complete Ma Vlast, my own favorite Moldau being one recorded long ago by Leopold Stokowski, available in an RCA collection of rhapsodies. In any case, here Dorati again seems brisker than other conductors, yet his timing is actually slower than four other recordings I had on hand for comparison. It's a trick Dorati employs, seeming to be quickening the tempo when he is really slowing it.

After that we get Sarka (1875), which refers to a female warrior in Czech legend who exacts a bloody revenge on the male sex. This portion of Ma Vlast ties in with the final two sections in describing Bohemia's fierce struggle for independence. Dorati succeeds in capturing its excitement and mystery.

From Bohemia's Woods and Fields (1875) is pretty much self-explanatory. In this segment we're back to the pastoral pleasures of the countryside. Dorati is properly lilting and melodic, the music's lively ebbs and flows harking back to the conductor's handling of the Vltava section.

The second disc opens with the two concluding symphonic poems: Tabor (1878), which introduces us to a Hussite war tune (the Hussites were followers of John Huss, who initiated a nationalistic movement in Bohemia in the late fourteenth century); and Blanik (1879), the mountain where the Hussites retreated before their ultimate fight for liberation. I always think of these final portions of the cycle as the battle sequences. Like other people, I'm sure, though, I have never found these pieces as satisfying as Smetana's preceding music; it's a little long and more than a little repetitious. Nevertheless, Dorati plays up the drama for all it's worth and makes one sit up and take notice as much as or more than other interpreters have done. Perhaps only in the concluding section, Blanik, does Dorati seem a touch hesitant or tardy, but without a direct comparison to other recordings, he seems right on. Besides which, the more relaxed pace lends a greater weight and dignity to the final chapter.

The companion filler piece, the symphonic poem In Nature's Realm by Smetana's countryman, Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904), makes an appropriate choice. Dvorak wrote it as the first in a trio of independent overtures connected by a related musical theme. Dvorak's idea was to show Man in the face of Nature and how nature can affect one in a positive way if we let it into our lives. Dorati conducts it delicately yet powerfully and allows us to take pleasure in the music's sweet harmonies.

Originally recorded by Philips in 1986 and issued by them on a single CD, the 2011 reissued Newton Classics edition spreads Ma Vlast over two discs to good effect. As we might expect from a Philips recording of the Concertgebouw Orchestra, it's quite realistic, capturing the spacious hall acoustic without sacrificing too much detail or definition. The sound is wide, deep, and expansive, with fine dynamics, adequate bass and highs, and a midrange well balanced with the extremes. While the sound is not completely transparent, with a slightly reverberant overall effect, it is quite natural and welcome.

JJP

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa