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Bedrich SMETANA (1824-1884)
Má vlast (My Fatherland) (1872-9)
Symphonic poems:-
Vysehrad [Myth]
Vltava (The Moldau) [Nature]
Sarka [Myth]
From Bohemia's Woods and Fields [Nature]
Tábor [History]
Blaník [History]
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Rec. Musikverein, Vienna, Austria, November 2001, DDD
RCA RED SEAL/BMG CLASSICS 82876 54331 2 [2CDs: 39.32+43.46]


Má Vlast is undoubtedly one of the best known works of Smetana even when knowledge is restricted to the tone poems, 'The Moldau' and 'Bohemia's Woods and Fields'. The work is not of ideal length for a CD, running to just a few minutes over its capacity and necessitating two CDs if played unabridged or unhurried. Of the many versions available perhaps three of the best are Kubelik, Mackerras and Talich. Kubelik has much affection for this work, having recorded it five times in a catalogue with over 32 versions (some being repeats with different couplings). The Czech Philharmonic Orchestra with its excellent Bohemian musicians has generally been accepted as a favourite for a number of Má vlast recordings, yet Vienna with its Philharmonic is geographically close by and is likely to carry the necessary Bohemian nuances. So how does Harnoncourt in this 2001 Austrian recording with the large forces of the Vienna Philharmonic match up to any previous recordings already in the listener's mind?

Harnoncourt has made his reputation with works of the German masters rather than those of Bohemians like Smetana yet he is capable of releasing hidden textures the score might have to offer. The truth is that we have an orthodox, leisurely and light reading of the score that is brought to life with sparkling brass and clear melodic lines. The dynamics tend to be stretched to provide additional impact.

The opening part, Vysehrad is rich in texture with harps (nicely focused) and warm horns delivering the main motif that becomes a common theme throughout. This same theme is heard prominently in the Vltava (Moldau). Here Harnoncourt accentuates a pulsing rhythm and pointed brass to engaging effect.

The Moldau is played with sensitivity with the first violins clearly placed. One can actually follow the viola line where they carry the rippling undercurrent of motion. Perhaps the crescendo (At the Rapids) is somewhat too heavy with the brass, but then it does provide an agreeable contrast with the pianissimo ending.

The Sarka myth opens dramatically with swirling strings and harsh chords. This then melts into one of Smetana's most likeable passages - music that bounces along with skipping rhythm and an air of Tchaikovsky. The score is nicely handled with its rises and falls of emotion.

I found the opening to Bohemia's Woods and Fields far too heavy. Strident chords from brass and timpani are surely not how one might depict woods, fields and groves. And when the chords subside, the contrast is so marked you are thrown unexpectedly into the more natural pastoral setting that follows. Interestingly, in the notes, Harnoncourt gives no explanation as to why he makes this opening so strong.

I don't know whether Smetana scored the piccolo so much to give brilliance to the Tábor and Blanik parts but at the ending its 'top' sounds more throaty than pure and for my liking is too prominently focused.

The recording is spacious and I was surprised to read that it was in fact a live performance (Musikverein, Vienna) for there is no audience intrusion during the near-silent ultra-pianissimo passages. The orchestral sections are brilliantly balanced, as good as any studio recording.

The interesting notes (eight pages) are written by Harnoncourt himself and carry musical examples of the key melodies. I had not fully appreciated the legend/myth/nature/history background to each part before (these I have shown alongside the part titles) and I found the notes revealing. For the listener with a score, Harnoncourt has usefully indicated the bar numbers to the various passages he describes. However, it would have been of more universal help to have indexed the passages with track timings rather than bar numbers. The notes are provided in German, English and French.

Raymond Walker


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