Smetana’s epic, national symphonic cycle has a glowing document from the late Jiri Belohlavek and his Czech Philharmonic.
SMETANA: Ma Vlast – Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/ Jiri Belohlavek – Decca 483 3187, 76:52 (1/12/18) [Distr. by Universal] *****
Recorded 12-14 May 2014 at Smetana Hall, Prague, this reading of the esteemed 1874 symphonic cycle Ma Vlast celebrates the late Jiri Belohlavek (1946-2017), who twice held the position as Chief Conductor of the Czech Philharmonic. Belohlavek extends the epic tradition of performance that embraces Karel Ancerl, Vaclav Neumann, and Vaclav Talich, each of whom glorified the set of six pieces with a sense of grandeur and historical pathos.
The harp solo intones the bardic voice of Lumir, who sings in the opening portrait of the fortress Vysehrad of triumphal pageants and bitter struggles that have passed through the nation. The rising and falling motif bears a kind of foster-child association with Beethoven’s C Minor Symphony. With the introduction of pomp and ceremony, the strings, winds, brass, and tympani combine in solemn procession that can become quite manic in its bucolic and social panorama. The aural imaging of this magnificent tone-picture owes its potent definition to Recording Engineers Vaclav Roubal and Karel Soukenik.
The most popular of the symphonic pictures, Vltava (The Moldau) traces the mighty river back to its source in two mountain springs. Besides the grand melody, the busy undercurrent of strings, punctuated by horns and tympani, assures the nobility of the inexorable pulse of the rushing water. Belohlavek calls forth a frothy, muscular hunt-scene that then embraces a rustic wedding in hefty, earthy tones. The ensuing night-scene shows off the wind colors of the Czech Philharmonic to glowing advantage, while strings and harp provide a mystical womb of sound. As the waters move to the St. John Rapids, the musical picture cataracts and sprays in deft, even militant, intensity; finally, to plummet past the High Castle Vysehrad at Prague once more, and then onto the Elbe and the sea.
From landscape to legend, Smetana’s epic now portrays the warrior-princess Sarka, opening with a Wagnerian flourish to depict the female-led revolt against patriarchal rule. The male warrior Ctirad finds Sarka tied to a tree, with a sinuous clarinet’s invoking Sarka’s loveliness. Little does Ctirad know the vengeance in Sarka’s heart, her fuming at the death of her friend, Princess Libuse. Ctirad’s cello motif expands from flirtation into a full love-scene whose melodic contour nods to Berlioz. A kind of scherzo ensues, depicting a drunken revel, a wild polka in which Ctirad’s men drink drug-laced mead. During the bassoon-led snores, Sarka’s Amazon army slaughters the men in their stupor, their death rattle marked in trombones. Belohlavek captures the furious tempest of vengeance with hair-raising intensity, malicious glee.
In startling juxtaposition, From Bohemia’s Meadows and Forests reverts to an ecstasy of pastoral vision, rife with birdsong and country rhythms of the polka and furiant. Water nymphs seem to inhabits a countryside just as prone to enjoy rustic feasts and sites of ruined castles. The extended string fugato delicately traces a progression into winds and low basses that will soon yield up a chorale. The music celebrates the sheer bounty of life, culminating in both a kind of martial procession and full-throttle rustic dance in the spirit of Beethoven. The plangent, passionate virtuosity of the Czech ensemble warrants the price of admission.
Both Tabor and Blanik, linked together as musical ending and beginning, pay tribute to Czechoslovakia’s Hussite tradition. The chorale “Those who are warriors of God” celebrates the 15th Century movement for the political independence of Bohemia. Tabor achieves an apotheosis of sound worthy of any grand organ in Paris. The rest of the movement asserts a manic energy born of pure, national fervor. The concluding symphonic poem Blanik, set in d minor, serves as a kind of Wagnerian Valhalla for past warriors, who will rise again when their country demands their service. To call this entire cycle’s performance “heartfelt” seems the height of understatement.
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