SMETANA: Má Vlast – Chicago Symphony Orchestra/ Rafael Kubelík – Pristine Audio PASC 703 (76:31) [www.pristineclassical.com] *****:
Norman Lebrecht, in his candid, opinionated The Life and Death of Classical Music, describes Czech conductor Rafael Kubelík (1914-1996) as “a marvelously sensitive conductor, much loved by musicians in Prague and Brno and later on around the world. . . .A tall, willowy man, he had a deceptive ability to conjure warm sonorities from orchestras, sometimes at the expense of attacking edge. His Mahler cycle errs on the side of gentility and his Brahms, while gorgeously colored, glosses over the gloomier depths as if unwilling to countenance audience distress.
In Czech music, however, he shed all restraint and gave vent to ceaseless yearning. In the darkest hours of the Cold War he proclaimed publicly that he would live to see the Czechs regain their freedom, and he performed their heritage with messianic fervor.”
Pristine’s Andrew Rose restores, with his XR process and ambient stereo, the classic 1952 recording from Mercury Records, under the supervision of C. Robert Fine and his Neumann U-47 microphone, of Smetana’s national epic cycle of 1882, Má Vlast. In his accompanying note, Rose details the unhappy reception the recording initially received, the critics decrying its shrillness, cloudy sonics, and peak distortions. Now, Rose boasts of the “beautifully full sound of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra” for all to savor. I concur.
From the poetic invocation by the Czech national bard, Lumir, in two harps, the opening tone-poem, Vyšehrad, embodies even its castle ruins, the pride and gallant deeds of the Czech past. The four-note motto: B♭–E♭–D–B♭ appears at notable points in the narrative and again at the end of The Moldau, where the two noble landmarks converge. A large contrapuntal section depicts the heroic ambitions of the high castle, the Chicago trumpets, led by inimitable Adolph Herseth, resoundingly dominant. The CSO strings and timpani join in the festive paroxysm, valiant and decidedly, ultimately, gloriously tragic. The woodwinds assume the burden of the motto, its dominant seventh now resolved in somber resignation and autumnal beauty.
Virtually without pause, the music segues directly into the suite’s most durable section, Vltava, which wastes no time gathering up the liquid energies of the river to become an E Minor hymn both to Nature and to the native soil. In its mighty course to the Elbe, the music passes through a folk wedding dance and a moonlight nocturne rife with spirits. The rhythmic acumen and color commentary prove enchanted, in the league of execution shared by Kubelík’s predecessors and peers, Talich, Ancerl, and Neumann. The trumpet and timpani work as the river approaches and enters the St. John Rapids has gained volume, confidence, majesty. Among the most accelerated of renditions, this Moldau resonates with dramatic and poetic spectacle.
The third tone-poem Šárka, borrows from the ancient Czech legend The Maidens’ War and the fierce protagonist Šárka, resolved to destroy the princely knight Ctirad and his troops. This section of the cycle, along Vltava, remained the only excerpts performed by Leopold Stokowski. The blast of horns and cymbals announces the deadly attack by the vengeful horde of women, a fugal rout of assorted orchestral choirs in strict counterpoint and studied colors. The bass instruments groan with the deaths of Ctirad’s men, and a lone wind instrument over a tremolo announces a furious epilogue of thrilling consequence. The rousing Chicago brass section, mostly triple-tongued, simply sweeps us away. Kubelík garners, especially enhanced by the Pristine production values, guarantees a gripping experience.
The last two sections of Má Vlast, Tabor and Blanik, form a diptych in homage of the Czech Hussite tradition of Southern Bohemia, involving religious wars fought between 1419 and 1434, exacerbated by the execution of Jan Hus for heresy by the Catholic Church in 1415. A hammer theme in D Minor, 3/2, pervades Tabor, whose main theme derives from a Hussite hymn, “Ye Who are Warriors of God.” With repetitive, martial vehemence, the theme assumes command of the entire Chicago Symphony, whose resonance clearly means to imitate the diapason of the organ. The tempo increases and then subsides, its resumed momentum achieving a fury of religious zeal.
Blanik dynamically extends the militant intensity of Tabor, initiated and propelled by the three-note motto theme. The mountain Blanik, in legend, houses a massive army of religious knights who sleep in preparation for a victorious battle for Czech freedom. Because King Wenceslaus IV of Bohemia planned to be crowned the Holy Roman Emperor (requiring Papal Coronation), he suppressed the religion of the Hussites, yet it continued to spread. Division must yield to unity of purpose for the land to be free. The part of the hymn Smetana cites asserts that “finally with Him you will always be victorious,” and the music will resolve in Lumir’s invocation of Vltava to meet at the High Castle, Vyšehrad.
Inspired and inspiring at once, this performance has acquired a sonic sheen that preserves its grandeur with a fervor that qualifies the disc for Best of the Year inclusion. Highly recommended.
More information from Pristine