Smetana: Ma Vlast (CD review)

Theodore Kuchar, Janacek Philharmonic Orchestra. Brilliant Classics 94853.

Brilliant Classics has been reissuing some real gems over the past few years, often performances that the public regrettably overlooked the first time around. Nevertheless, the Smetana disc under review is not one of their best choices to date.

Not that there is anything at all wrong with Theodore Kuchar's 2007 recording of Smetana's complete Ma Vlast. It's a perfectly respectable interpretation in acceptable sound. No, the trouble is that for the money there are already more colorful, more insightful, more dramatic, and better recorded discs available of this perennial favorite music. However, Kuchar does have one advantage that some of the others don't: His performance of the complete work fits on a single disc, and many other recordings require a couple of discs to accommodate it. Still, there are other, better single-disc recordings, too. So, my concern remains. If you don't already have a favorite CD of this music, some discs other than Kuchar you might explore include Neumann and the Gewandhaus Orchestra (Berlin Classics), Kubelik and the Czech Philharmonic (Supraphon), Dorati and the Concertgebouw O. (Philips or Newton Classics), Berglund and the Dresden Staatskapelle (EMI), Pesek and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic (Virgin), and Wit and the Polish National Radio Symphony (Naxos), to name a few.

Still, if you're a collector or if you just want to sample everything out there, Kuchar's recording is certainly one to explore. The price is reasonable, and everything about the performance and sound is at least unobjectionable.

So, Czech composer Bedrich Smetana (1824-1884), an intense nationalist, wrote Ma Vlast ("My Country") between 1874 and 1879. The work comprises six symphonic poems that describe his country, the composer dedicating the cycle to the city of Prague, the first two movements dealing with the sights and sounds of the city.

Things begin with Vysehrad (1874), which Smetana named after the castle of Bohemian kings in Prague. Kuchar paces the movement pretty well, not too fast or too slow. There's a gentle spirit about it, too, the rhythms well judged for maximum lilt and spring, the whole thing culminating in an appropriate climax and fade.

After that is probably the most popular movement of the piece, Vltava (1874), which describes the river called the Moldau in German, and which 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. Because this music is so famous, though, there are quite a few separate recordings it, my own favorite being one recorded long ago by Leopold Stokowski and available in a collection of rhapsodies (RCA or JVC). Anyway, this Kuchar performance takes it a bit too quickly for my taste. The river is not so much mildly flowing along as it is rushing downhill. The rippling waters seem not so much to relax a listener as to agitate. Moreover, the tempos fluctuate as though the river where ebbing and flowing in spurts.

Theodore Kuchar
Next, we find 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, and I enjoyed Kuchar's interpretation as well as anyone's. He captures the dramatic tension persuasively and then plays with the contrasts delightfully.

From Bohemia's Woods and Fields (1875) is rather self-explanatory. Here, we're back to the pastoral pleasures of the countryside where we started. This is another well-judged movement from Kuchar, although I didn't quite picture in my mind the trees and grasslands as clearly as I have with the aforementioned conductors, who seem a touch more attuned to the pictorial aspects of the music. Kuchar appears a bit more perfunctory about things.

The two final symphonic poems are 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, however, I have never found these segments as satisfying as Smetana's preceding music; it's a little long and more than a little repetitious. Whatever, maybe Kuchar wanted to be sure to squeeze the entire work onto a single disc or maybe he was just in a hurry to get things over, I don't know; but he seems really to skim over the surface of these final poems rather expeditiously. As a result, they lose some of their theatrical excitement. Still, he doesn't miss the effect completely, and within time he builds up to a fairly thrilling conclusion.

Producer and engineer Jaroslav Stranavsky recorded the music at the Concert Hall, Ostravia, Czech Republic in 2007. Brilliant Classics issued it as a part of a three-disc set of Smetana material several years before the present disc appeared and then reissued the present disc in 2015. For me, the sound is a little too close and one dimensional, but for the most part it seems good enough, nicely detailed and all. There's a sweet ambient bloom, very light, around the instruments that takes most of the effect of brightness or hardness away. In essence, it's an easy-listening album that should offend no one, while not exactly thrilling audiophiles. Kind of like the performances, actually.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


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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