Classical CD Reviews

SMETANA: Orchestral Works, Vol. 2 = Sel. from The Bartered Bride, Libuse, The Devil’s Wall, The Brandenburgers in Bohemia, The Kiss, Dalibor, The Two Widows – BBC Phil./Giandrea Noseda – Chandos

Smetana in the old-school tradition of conductors Talich and Szell -- high, glossy spirits.

Published on July 7, 2009

SMETANA: Orchestral Works, Vol. 2 = Sel. from The Bartered Bride, Libuse, The Devil’s Wall, The Brandenburgers in Bohemia, The Kiss, Dalibor, The Two Widows – BBC Phil./Giandrea Noseda – Chandos

SMETANA: Orchestral Works, Vol. 2 = The Bartered Bride: Suite; Overture to The Secret; Prelude to Libuse; Prelude and Infernal Dance from The Devil’s Wall; Prelude and Act I Ballet from The Brandenburgers in Bohemia; Overture to The Kiss; Entr’acte from Dalibor; The Two Widows: Overture; Prelude to Act II; Polka from Act II – BBC Philharmonic/Giandrea Noseda – Chandos CHAN 10518, 72:33 [Distrib. by Naxos] ****:

Recorded in Manchester 4 & 7-8 October 2008, these selected, orchestral excerpts from Smetana operas bestow a world of color and visceral excitement to the accumulating legacy of conductor Noseda, who has already conquered the realm of the tone poem in Franz Liszt. In the tradition of old-school conductors Talich, Kubelik, Kertesz, Kempe, and Szell, Noseda first gives us energetically vibrant readings of the main staples from The Bartered Bride: the Overture, Act I Polka, Furiant, and Dance of the Comedians. The famous Overture, with its virtuosic, running “commentary” (aka gossip) figures, bursts forth in striking  timbres of tympani, horns, and triangle.  The Polka already tells us where Dvorak came from, the high winds, horns, and cymbals literally percolating with Bohemian eclat. That the BBC Symphony can sound so idiomatically Czech is tribute enough to Nosada’s color discipline. The Furiant, no less, appears tame, only to explode in rambling polyphony and wayward horn punctuations under a high, drunken piccolo. Noseda plays the extended version of the Dance of the Comedians–with a highly syncopated middle section we rarely hear–enjoys full sonority from the trumpet, the music’s appropriately jumping in the manner a lithe polka that has one’s toes tapping without his having noticed.

The Secret (1882), a comic opera, tells of estranged lovers, the libretto by Eliska Krasnohorska. The Overture casts a  Russian, Glinka-esque glow at first, but strings and woodwinds soon lighten their textures, and the dance-like figures proceed in sonata-form augmented by a dark-hued fugue not far in spirit from Mozart‘s K. 546.  The 1881 opera Libuse was meant as a festival piece for coronation of Emperor Franz Joseph as King of the Bohemians. His refusal led to the work’s initiating the National Theater instead. The Prelude’s series of triumphant tableaux and fanfares celebrate the glories of the Czech people, as foretold by the medieval seer Libuse. The exalted character of the piece makes it akin in spirit to Wagner’s Parsifal–or the orchestral prelude from Das Rheingold.  From The Devil’s Wall (1882) we have the Prelude and Infernal Dance, the common theme being the large rocks lying in the Vltava as a result–in the 13th century legend– of the Devil’s minions (a la Wagner’s Nibelungen) having attempted to construct a dam that the Hermit Benes destroys with the sign of the Cross. A grumbly bassoon urges the Devil Rarach, the strings intimating two mortal lovers. While the Infernal Dance is neither Liszt’s Dance at the Village Inn nor Gounod’s esteemed waltz, it has a violent energy worth a listen.

The Brandenburgers in Bohemia,
Smetana’s first opera (1866) presents those cross-rhythm dances and metric irregularities that sound much like Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances and the Carnival Overture combined. The 13th Century plot celebrates the liberation of the Czechs from the German army, a theme history proved rather persistent in the Czech national character. The Overture to the comic, lovers-reconciled The Kiss (1876) ingratiates itself as a lyric outpouring, rather patrician in spirit, almost a selection from Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty.  In the various step-wise melodies here and in The Brandenburgers, we can hear adumbrations of The Bartered Bride, even excerpts from Ma Vlast. Dalibor is Smetana’s third opera (1865) and contains some of his finest music. A medieval dispute creates a tragic love story, which is no less a hymn to Czech music and musicians. The murdered violinist Zdenek appears to Dalibor in a dream, this Act II interlude. The extensive harp part reminds me of the music in Bergman’s Wild Strawberries. The exquisite writing for violin (leader Yuri Torchinsky)  and cello, moreover, might have been inspired by sequences from Swan Lake.

Last, we can savor a suite from The Two Widows (1874), a comic opera in the spirit of Mozart whose harmonies look forward to Puccini. The librettto is by Mallefille, Les Deux Veuves. The machinations to get everyone betrothed to the right person has a bit of Shakespearean wit and intricacy, a Czech Cosi fan tutte. The heroic main theme proves a (Hussite) cousin to Ma Vlast’s Blanik. A quicksilver Prelude to Act II (hints of the Russians, like Stravinsky’s early, E-flat Symphony) leads to a frothy Polka in national colors, performed in a high gloss by sympathetic musicians of the first caliber.

–Gary Lemco

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