This massive cycle of symphony poems was Smetana’s celebration of the history, mythology and landscapes of his home country of Bohemia, and is recognized as one of the major illustrations of the nationalistic music trend to come out of the Romantic period. I have been listening to the colorful work for many years now, starting with dubbing it to open reel tape from 78s that were being trashed from the local university music department’s library in the early 1950s. I recall the excellent version on a Mercury Lp set a few years later and the exciting performance/execrable sound of the LPs I brought back from a student trip to Eastern Europe in 1957. Some of these works have such a wide dynamic range and such complex orchestration that only two channels at 44.1K resolution just aren’t sufficient to tackle it.
With this hi-res surround version the sonic possibilities of the cycle are finally realized for the home listener. The LSO records all their albums, whether SACD or standard CD, during live concerts. So the impact of the performances are at their maximum, and since the LSO does this on a regular basis they have everything set up and tweaked technically for the best possible pickup.
Creating Ma Vlast was a tremendous challenge for Smetana, because he was fighting the same disastrous deafness which plagued Beethoven. His personal vicissitudes were in sync with those of his country which he was memorializing in the symphonic score. The introduction for two harps at the very beginning of Vysehrad became the musical theme of Radio Prague. The word is the name of a high rock standing at the entry of the river Vitava into Prague. The river is dynamically pictured in the second work, which has become the composer’s biggest hit. This piece has become a real chestnut on pops programs but with the disc’s superb playing and sonics I felt I was really hearing it for the first time. Sarka takes us to mythology for the story of a seriously bitchy female warrior; the music is often thunderous and stirring. The beauties of the Bohemian countryside inspired From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields, which is Smetana’s version of the pastoral portion of Beethoven’s 6th Symphony. The final two poems involve the Bohemian dissident sect known as the Hussites, who challenged the Catholic Church long before Luther but whose fighters were ultimately defeated and killed on Blanik hill. The legend is that the warriors lie sleeping in the hill until their nation calls on them again in its moment of need. A most highly recommended SACD!
– John Sunier