Smetana: Ma Vlast (CD review)

Jiri Belohlavek, Czech Philharmonic. Decca 483 3187.

The Czech nationalist composer Bedrich Smetana (1824-1884) wrote his collection of symphonic poems Ma Vlast ("My Country") between 1874 and 1879. The six movements describe his country's beauty and some of its history, the composer dedicating the cycle to the city of Prague, with the first two sections describing some of the sights and sounds of the city.

In the present recording the late Czech conductor Jiri Belohlavek (1946-2017) leads the Czech Philharmonic in one of his last recordings, and, given that over the years Ma Vlast has become a sort of national anthem for the Czech Republic, it's a fitting final tribute to the country and its music. Belohlavek had been the Chief Conductor of the Czech Philharmonic for two separate tenures (1990-92 and 2012-17), and he had already recorded the Smetana cycle with the same orchestra (for the Supraphon label) some twenty years earlier. So it is certainly a pleasure to have a Czech conductor leading a Czech orchestra in Czech music. The stuff must have been in their blood.

Anyway, the music begins with Vysehrad (1874), which Smetana named after a castle of Bohemian kings in Prague and the rock that stands there. Belohlavek judges the movement pretty well, and it comes off among the best in the cycle. The rhythms are relaxed, the melodies are lilting, and the climaxes come unforced.

After that is probably the most popular piece, Vltava (1874), which describes a river called the Moldau in German and uses an old Czech folk tune as its principal theme. In Smetana's original program notes, he tells 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 of it, my own favorite being a very leisurely, very lyrical one recorded long ago by Leopold Stokowski and available in a collection of rhapsodies (RCA or JVC). Whatever, Belohlavek's interpretation couldn't be more different from Stokowski's. Belohlavek moves his river along at a brisk, accelerated pace, quicker than most any version I've heard. Nevertheless, the tempos never sound rushed, just curious.

Jiri Belohlavek
Coming next is Sarka (1875), referring to a female warrior in Czech legend who exacts a bloody revenge on the male sex after her lover is untrue. This portion of Ma Vlast ties in with the final two sections in describing Bohemia's fierce struggle for independence, and Belohlavek handles it with appropriate fire and fury. Throughout, the Czech orchestra plays splendidly, richly and passionately.

The next title is rather self-explanatory: From Bohemia's Woods and Fields (1875). Here, we're back to the pastoral pleasures of the countryside where we started. This is another well-judged movement from Belohlavek, although I didn't quite picture in my mind the trees and grasslands as clearly as I have with some other conductors, who seem slightly better attuned to the pictorial aspects of the music. Belohlavek appears more perfunctory about things, bringing off the big central theme pretty well, if a bit somberly.

The two last symphonic poems, Tabor (1878) and Blanik (1879), are interconnected and introduce 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 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, but I have never found them as satisfying as Smetana's preceding music. For me, the concluding movements are a little long, a little noisy, and a little repetitious. Whatever, Belohlavek couples these two final movements seamlessly, making them appear all of one piece, and he ends the work as heroically as anyone.

In the end, I cannot say I prefer Belohlavek's recording to some of my old favorites. If I had to choose, I'd still go with Vaclav Neumann (Berlin Classics), Rafael Kubelik (Supraphon), Antal Dorati (Philips or Newton Classics), Paavo Berglund (Warner Classics), Libor Pesek (Virgin Classics), or Antoni Wit (Naxos). Not that I have to choose, and this new entry is surely at least a contender.

Producers Jeri Gemrot and Dr. Alexander Buhr and engineers Vaclav Roubai and Karel Soukenik recorded the music during opening concerts at the Prague Spring Festival, Smetana Hall, Municipal House, Prague in May 2014. The result they obtained is mostly good, old-fashioned Decca sound: very clear, very clean, very wide, very big, very compartmentalized, very highlighted, and very one-dimensional. Fortunately, it is also quiet and fairly natural in its tonal response, although a touch hard and glaring in the upper midrange and a little soft and woolly in the mid-bass. Dynamic impact seems a tad muted at times, too, yet quite striking at others. It's all a bit unusual and occasionally distracting.


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

No comments:

Post a Comment

Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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. --John J. Puccio

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to

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

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa