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Bedřich SMETANA (1824-1884)
Má vlast (1874-1879, arr. by the composer) [80:00]
Evelinde Trenkner and Sontraud Speidel (piano duo)
rec. Konzerthaus der Abtei, Marienmünster, Germany, January 2016
MDG 93019606 SACD [80:00]

Straight away it must be said that the Piano Duo Trenker/Speidel are splendid. The standard of their playing, with its wide dynamic range, rhythmic control and musicianship is exemplary. For aficionados of piano reductions such as this, the duo’s version of Ma Vlast can be warmly recommended. ‘Aficionados’ - I think that’s the problem in a nutshell. It’s brilliantly played and recorded in high quality sound but this is a limited market and I’m not sure how many people will respond to Ma Vlast in this guise.

Smetana’s superb cycle of six tone poems is very popular with audiences for its drama, tunefulness and wonderful use of the orchestra. Once you remove the orchestral palette from the equation the work is undoubtedly diminished. Smetana published this piano version for four hands prior to the release of the orchestral score so it certainly has some validity. He did this to make his score accessible to the general public who had limited access to the concert hall at the time. That was a laudable objective and served its purpose in its day. In our modern age of instantly accessible orchestral recordings via the radio, internet and CD player those days have long since gone. Recordings such as this are no more than an interesting reminder of bygone times, no matter how brilliant the performances happen to be.

The opening movement, ‘Vyšehrad’, immediately poses a problem. Two pianos can mimic the harp quite admirably but the ear quickly tires and it soon becomes apparent that the actual musical content is fairly limited and repetitive. It’s Smetana’s use of the orchestra that gives the music life. Two pianos can’t make the movement work to its full potential and to be frank it becomes rather tedious. ‘Vltava’ is somewhat more attractive mainly due to the composer’s thematic ideas being more varied and interesting but the sonorities of the high strings and rippling woodwinds are sorely missed in the moonlight episode. ‘From Bohemia's woods and fields’ works quite well but the sonority of symphony orchestra in full flow is sadly missed.

One could go on and discuss the six movements in greater depth but the conclusions would be the same. What we have here is some excellent playing recorded in state of the art sound. It’s a novelty worth searching out for those inclined to be adventurous but the real deal can only be heard by listening to the orchestral version. It’s very laudable but simply not for me.

John Whitmore

Previous review: Rob Maynard



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