SMETANA: Ma Vlast – Janacek Philharmonic Orch./ Theodore Kuchar – Brilliant Classics 94853, 73:33 (4/1/08) [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
Among the several fine memories I have of hearing Smetana’s 1882 Czech national cycle Ma Vlast, I include the three commercial recordings by Vaclav Talich and the live BSO appearance at Tanglewood in 1969 by Karel Ancerl, a performance – replete with thunderstorm – of the complete cycle that Boston had not heard since Karl Muck led a rendition in 1915. We must regret that both sound masters Karajan and Stokowski performed occasional selections of the suite but never opted to inscribe the entire cycle. Theodore Kuchar (b. 1963) leads a 2007 performance from Concert Hall, Ostrava, Czech Republic, engineered in bright, resonant sonics by Jaroslav Stranavsky.
From the opening harp motif – the bard Lumir’s calling – in riffs softly reminiscent of the Beethoven “Fate” motif – upon his national muse, we hear the splendor of Vysehrad Castle emerges from within the chivalric pageantry of strings, tympani and brass that sings and gallops of bygone glories of Queen Libuse. The eternal river Moldau enjoys the benefits of the Janacek Philharmonic’s sweet strings and piping winds, passing the Vysehrad Castle with thunder and spray that encapsulates the pride and beauty of a nation. In the course of its passage, Kuchar invests alternately delicate and powerful rhythmic nuance and melodic energy into the hunt, folk dance, nocturne, and cascade episodes of this brilliant score. With the third, mid-way symphonic poem, Sarka, we enter a valley of death near Prague, a venue in which the soldier Ctirad and his men, seduced by the Amazon women, fall prey, frenetico, in their drunken stupor to a murderous band of maenads. The interplay of strings, brass, winds, tympani, cymbals and triangle proves utterly intoxicating, then fatal.
With Bohemia’s Meadows and Forests, Smetana celebrates the pure pantheism his native land inspires, a genuine cornucopia for the ear, with the full orchestra in sumptuous panoply, moving through a rousing fugue and whirling concluding polka. The national hero Jan Hus, martyred in 1415, provides the religious, martial impetus for Tabor, named for a mount where Christ had been expected for His second coming. The power of the Hussites’ faith finds expression in their hymn “Ye who are God’s Warriors,” used by Smetana with inventive variety. The Janacek Philharmonic woodwinds enjoy an aerial clarity, while brass and percussion add the requisite conviction. Let me here praise the first trumpet – his part often as audaciously demanding as that in Liszt’s Mazeppa – for thrilling work throughout these readings. Blanik invokes another mountain, here associated with a Hussite stronghold. Kuchar wisely reduces the silence between movements, since the militant Tabor motif announces the venue in which the Hussites sleep with St. Wenceslas, until one day summoned by national forces for their aid. The music builds, while passing through a lovely shepherd’s melody, to a splendid apotheosis that embraces Lumir’s hap motif, his having surveyed his country’s story in masterful fashion. So, too, have Kuchar and his responsive forces built a venerable interpretation of a timeless Czech musical masterpiece.