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Bedřich SMETANA (1824-1884)
Má vlast (My Homeland) (1879) [76:52]
Czech Philharmonic / Jiří Bělohlávek
rec. live, 12-14 May 2014 Smetana Hall, Municipal House, Prague, Czech Republic
DECCA 4833187 [76:52]

This live Decca recording from May 2014 of Smetana’s masterpiece Mŕ vlast (My Homeland) conducted by Jiří Bělohlávek was one of his last recordings with Czech Philharmonic. Prague-born Bělohlávek, who died in May 2017, was a leading interpreter of Czech classical music. He became chief conductor of the Czech Philharmonic in 1990, a role he served on two different occasions during a combined span of seven years (1990/1992, 2012/2017). The recording was produced at Smetana Hall during the opening pair of concerts of the Prague Spring International Festival following Bělohlávek’s return to the orchestra as chief conductor in 2012. Decca has dedicated this recording to the memory of Jiří Bělohlávek.

Smetana wrote the enduringly popular Má vlast, which displays his skills as master of the symphonic poem, between 1874 and 1879. Taking here almost 77 minutes to perform, this is a magnificent work—a patriotic collection of six symphonic poems, with its fame due predominantly to the stunning second work Vltava (The Moldau). Each work was conceived separately, and they received individual premičres. They were performed for the first time as a complete cycle in 1882 at Prague to great audience acclamation. Soon after commencing Má vlast Smetana became profoundly deaf, so he never heard the work performed in concert. Certainly, over the decades Má vlast has played an important role during many significant moments in the history of the Czech Philharmonic.

The first symphonic poem Vyšehrad (The High Castle) is a craggy and robust evocation of the great rock edifice on which the historic castle—standing proudly over the city by the river—is situated. In the famous Vltava (The Moldau) with its distinctive theme Bělohlávek presides over glorious playing of contrasting emotions, generating significant tension as the river winds its eventful course. Named after the heroic Czech warrior princess Šárka the poem is entirely vivid and often stirring. The poem Z českých luhů a hájů (From Bohemia's Meadows and Forests) in Bělohlávek’s hands is a joyous and picturesque portrayal of the Smetana’s Bohemia countryside, complete with evocative nature sounds. Named after the Hussite stronghold in Bohemia at the time of the Hussite rebellion, Tábor feels resolutely played and it brims with foreboding. Striking is the final poem Blaník, the white mountain inside which a legend says a huge army of Hussite knights sleep in timeless peace until threatened by an enemy invasion. Here Bělohlávek is vividly dramatic, generating palpable exhilaration at the conclusion. Má vlast is a work running through the Czech Philharmonic players like lifeblood; they are completely familiar with the score. Under Bělohlávek’s baton, nationalistic passions burn fiercely yet without fear of bursting out of control.

The music was recorded at live concerts at Smetana Hall, Prague. The engineering team for Bělohlávek excel, providing sound quality which has splendid presence, clarity and balance. There are adequate notes in the booklet written by Amanda Holloway, together with a note from Czech Philharmonic CEO and general manager.

In the record catalogue there are a number of excellent recordings of Má vlast with several performed by the Czech Philharmonic on Supraphon standing out. One of the best-known of those accounts was recorded by Rafael Kubelik at Prague Spring Festival in 1990, 24 years prior to this new Bělohlávek recording. The performance marked Kubelik’s return to his Czech homeland after an exile of almost 42 years. Bělohlávek in 1991 recorded another outstanding account and in addition, there is a dramatic 1954 mono recording of a performance by Václav Talich, which is worthy of praise. With the Czech Philharmonic in such outstanding form, this 2014 Bělohlávek’s account can stand comparison with the finest recordings.

Michael Cookson



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