Smetana: Ma Vlast (SACD review)

Walter Susskind, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. Mobile Fidelity UDSACD 4006.

Originally issued by Vox/Turnabout in 1975, this performance by Walter Susskind of Bedrich Smetana's set of descriptive tone poems has remained a favorite recording of many listeners for over thirty-five years. It's nice to hear it so lovingly remastered by Mo-Fi.

Smetana completed Ma Vlast, "My Country," in 1874 and dedicated it to the city of Prague. The work is, as most of you know, made up of six interrelated symphonic pictures, the first four, "Vysehrad," "Vltava" ("The Moldau"), "Sarka," and "From Bohemia's Woods and Fields," describing the sights and sounds of Smetana's native Czechoslovakia, while the last two, "Tabor" and "Blanik," celebrate famous military victories in Czech history. Incidentally, the composer requested that "Tabor" and "Blanik" never be played separately; that is, never without the other. Anyway, the complete cycle displays a varied number of moods and actions that have delighted audiences for as long as it's been around.

Maestro Susskind's way with the work is elegant and refined, much as we might find a Marriner or a Mackerras approaching the score. Not that the interpretation lacks energy or excitement--it would be hard to deny the music its due, no matter who was conducting it--but it does seem to lack an essential intensity that several other favorite conductors demonstrate.

Among the recordings I compared are the totally committed one with Rafael Kubelik and the Czech Philharmonic on Supraphon, the involving account with Paavo Berglund and the Dresden State Orchestra on EMI Seraphim, the period-instruments version by Roger Norrington and the London Classical Players on Virgin, the stylish production with Vaclav Neumann and the Leipzig Gewandhaus on Berlin Classics, the winning rendition with Libor Pesek and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic on Virgin, and the wholly involving interpretation with Antal Dorati and the Concertgebouw on Newton Classics. By comparison, Susskind seems a tad lax, content to let the music set its own course, certainly not a bad idea. In any case, Susskind is best in the surging currents of "The Moldau" and the sweeping hills and valleys of the "Bohemia" section. Then again, the two rather bombastic concluding poems have never impressed me as much, so Susskind may not be at fault for not offering them up in a more rousing manner.

The sound, originally made, as I said, by Vox in the mid 70's, as remastered by Mobile Fidelity on this hybrid SACD issue is ultrasmooth, ultraclean, and uncommonly widespread, even on the stereo layer to which I listened, but by comparison again to the recordings mentioned above, it's also a tad too warm and soft. Interestingly, it's the Berglund and Dorati recordings I found sonically superior on my system (VMPS RM40s)--more detailed, transparent, and dynamic than the rest. And the Berglund, at budget price, is also the cheapest of the bunch I auditioned. But for those listeners who have always cherished the Susskind reading, it has undoubtedly never sounded so good.

JJP

No comments:

Post a Comment

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.

Mission Statement

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.

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

Readers with impolite, discourteous, bitchy, whining, complaining, nasty, mean-spirited, unhelpful letters may send them to pucciojj@recycle.bin.

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa