Friday, 23 February 2018

Má vlast: Jiri Belohlavek's last recording with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra

Smetana: Ma Vlast - Czech Philharmonic - DECCA
Smetana Má vlast; Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, Jiri Belohlavek; DECCA
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jan 13 2018 Star rating: 4.0
A treasurable memory of the late Jiri Belohlavek in peak form in Smetana

This disc is the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra's first disc after the death of the orchestra's chief conductor, Jiri Belohlavek, and rather appropriately the recording, on Decca, is Smetana's Má vlast. The recording was made during the opening concerts of the Prague Spring Festival in 2014, recorded at the Smetana Hall in Prague.

Smetana's Má vlast was written over the period 1872 to 1882, a period during which the composer lost his hearing due to an ear infection. The piece takes the form of six tone-poems, with Smetana taking this very Lisztian form and re-shaping it to the purposes of Czech nationalism. Whilst some of Smetana's operas had been accused of being too Wagnerian, this cycle was acclaimed as the epitome of Czech national style.

Vyšehrad opens with the wonderful harps. Belohlavek and the orchestra go on to create a grand but evocative sound, with the recording being very spacious. Despite the fine-grained elegance of the playing there is much wonderful rhythmic detail. Vltava opens with the beautifully fluid flutes, depicting the source of the river, and as this develops into grand sweeping gestures, Belohlavek brings a lovely rhythmic swing to the music. The episodes along the way are strongly characterised, with rhythmically crisp dance, fine-grained, transparent textures for the water sprites, and terrific drama for the arrival in Prague, yet still with a feeling of constant onward flow.

Šárka is impetuous and dramatic, yet with underlying Czech rhythms always tightly delineated, and a robust feeling of dance. Overall, this most dramatic of tone poems is given a real sense of narrative, full of orchestral colour. Z českých luhů a hájů is a joyful piece with echoes of Dvorak's Slavonic dances. Belohlavek and the orchestra phrased the music beautifully, interlacing the Czech melodies and rhythms with a fine-grained shapeliness, but Belohlavek never loses sight of the larger scale whole.

Tábor opens mysterious with impending drama, and Belohlavek combines the grand chorale with a terrific feeling of narrative. The final tone poem, Blaník is textually related and almost seems like an extension of the previous movement. Again we appreciate Belohlavek's combination of narrative drama, overall sense of architecture with fine rhythmic detail.

Everyone will have their own favourite recording for this work, and there are definitely fine recordings from the past that need to be on the library shelves. But this one provides a good modern recording with a wonderful sense of occasion, along with Belohlavek's sympathetic take on the music.

Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884) - Má vlast
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra
Jiri Behlohlavek
Recorded 12-14 May 2014, Smetana Hall, Municipal House
DECCA 483 3187 1CD [76.52]
Available from Amazon.

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  • Bernstein, Gubaidulina & more: violinist Vadim Gluzman on the importance of contemporary repertoire  - Interview
  • Music in a cold climate: the sounds of Hansa Europe - CD review (***)
  • Spices! Perfumes! Toxins! Approachably melodic percussion concerto - CD review - CD review (***)
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  • Old-fashioned passion: Benjamin Godard's Dante - CD review
  • Korngold's Die tote Stadti at the Semperoper in Dresden - Opera review (****)
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