SMETANA: Ma Vlast – Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/ Semyon Bychkov – Pentatone

by | Apr 30, 2024 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

SMETANA: Ma Vlast – Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/ Semyon Bychkov – Pentatone PTC 5187 203 (81:21) [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

There have been several outstanding, recorded performances of Bedrich Smetana’s patriotic symphonic cycle of six tone-poems Ma Vlast (1875-1880) with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, including three by master Vaclav Talich (1929, 1941, 1954).  Other excellent alternatives lie with another Czech master conductor (from Chicago, Munich, and Prague), Rafael Kubelik, of which his 1990 return to the Czech Philharmonic for the Prague Spring has particular, emotional resonance. The original Talich model casts its influence on a host of Czech acolytes, including Ancerl, Belohlávek, Kosler, Neumann, Pešek, Šenja and Smetácek, all leading the Czech Philharmonic. Pentatone, working with Recording Producer Holger Urbach, brings us a new, highly emotive CPO account taped 25-29 January 2021 at the Dvorák Hall of the Rudolfinum, Prague. 

The opening of the cycle, Vyšehrad (The High Castle), has two harps intoning the lyre of the mythical bard Lumir, who will invoke, after the main “castle,” Lento motif B♭–E♭–D–B♭, a series of knightly episodes or pageants that recall its heroically epic past, its downfall, and its spiritual resurrection. The coloration later, from flutes and winds, horns, timpani, and cymbals, invests the opening motif with reverential nostalgia. Bychkov’s rendition projects a virile but elastic, transparent beauty. The ever-familiar Vltava (The Moldau) traces the course of the mighty river to its destination at the Elbe. Taken broadly, if a mite slowly, the merging rivulets soon form a potent, driven, natural force that passes by a series of rural scenes along the Bohemian Forest, including a fox hunt, village dance, a nocturnal meditation, the St. John Rapids, and finally Prague and its High Castle. The orchestral definition, clear and spacious, becomes pantheistic and mystical in the night-vigil scene, imbuing the river with spectral qualities.  The CPO trumpet work, cymbals, timpani, and high woodwinds create a real sense of tumult among the waves, suddenly achieving apotheosis in the national anthem, La Montovana, whose E minor tonality has, from the first, an air prideful regret but now transforms into heroic assertion as it hails Vyšehrad.

For his third tone-poem, Smetana addresses the mythical Šárka, a fierce combatant from The Maidens’ War of Czech legend. She and her cohorts effectively seduce and destroy Prince Ctirad and his fellows, and its air of malicious violence posits a tour de force for the orchestra. This section, along with a periodic performance of Vltava, was the only other excerpt of the cycle given by Leopold Stokowski. A quick jab, low C ff, initiates the pulsating drama, that features high riffs in the winds that settle down to announce the knightly procession from Ctirad and his comrades. After having discovered Šárka bound to a tree, Ctirad releases her so that a love scene may proceed. Her beloved and his men subsequently drugged with mead, Šárka sounds the hunting horn for the relentless slaughter, here realized as a perverse polka. The brisk attacks in the strings and winds, the jagged upbeats, all serve to vivify the militant carnage, as portentous as it is often lyrical. 

A torrent of visual, pantheistic energy permeates the opening of From Bohemia’s Meadows and Forests in B-flat Major, an immediate splash of Impressionism as potent as Van Gogh. A fugue evolves temporarily to segue to a chorale-like theme that, too, undergoes contrapuntal development. Once the theme gains national ascendency, the music breaks off into a passionate rustic, festival dance that heaves in and out of dynamic levels. The tenor of this dance well complements the rhythmic vitality we find in Smetana’s famed opera The Bartered Bride. In a cyclical gesture, the festivities pass so that the blind, natural impulse may revel in spiritualized form, the fervent chorale, held high in the CPO trumpets. 

The last two sections, Tábor and Blaník, posit the most assertive, militant aspects of the cycle, meant to proceed attacca, to flow one into the other. The town of Tábor in South Bohemia became the center for martyr Jan Hus and the Bohemian Reformation and the Hussite Wars. Their battle hymn, “Ye Who are Warriors of God,” resonates after a deep pedal tone and brass announce the tenor of the piece, rife with hammered, grim misgivings. The scoring easily basks in impulses wrought from Liszt, likely that composer’s Mazeppa. Once the march begins, after staggered, syncopated hesitancies, the orchestra rings out the hymn with an authority worthy of any cathedral. The tempo then increases as does the color texture, having become a manic, fervent crusade of religio-nationalist conviction.  The transparency of Bychkov’s string choir makes a dramatic foil to the strident whistling from winds and blaring trumpets. Even rhythmic asymmetries from Šárka become audible, a testament to the universality of this quest. The heavy tread continues right into Blaník, the mountain home of the sleeping knights of St. Wenceslaus. In its gravest hour of need, the Czech land will see these knights awaken to defend their home from assault from any direction of the four winds. 

Bychkov allows several moments’ separation between the last two movements, though the immediacy of the music’s 3/2 rhythms, ff, F major, and succeeding sfz work in trumpets and assisting brass urge us forward. Smetana indulges in some natural, idyllic passages before the inexorable, martial impetus resumes in colossal colors, now speeded up as if hurtling to some apocalypse. The Hussite motif sounds through the melée, a clarion in lighter texture, a call to proud arms. But only temporary, as the tutti, with its brass portfolio, high piccolo and triangle, saunters to spiritual triumph: “so that finally with Him you will always be victorious,” sings the chorale.  The hammer motto now combines with the mighty Vltava and its convergence with Vyšehrad, now become the Kingdom of Heaven.

—Gary Lemco

More information from Pentatone

Logo Pentatone

Album Cover for Bychkov Conducts Smetana


Related Reviews
Logo Pure Pleasure
Logo Apollo's Fire
Logo Crystal Records Sidebar 300 ms
Logo Jazz Detective Deep Digs Animated 01