Opus Kura OPK 2075, 78:15 (Distrib. Albany) ****:
Recorded in 1929 for HMV, this cycle of Smetana’s national epic Ma Vlast was the first inscription for Vaclav Talich (1883-1961), a conductor whose uncompromising, patriotic fervor impelled him to lead this work in the face of fascist oppression during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. Though transcriptions of the 78s have been offered by Koch and Supraphon (as part of the extensive Talich Edition), Opus Kura has re-edited the originals to make the performance more familiar to the Japanese historic-collector market. There are points of varying dynamic-range quality, even as soon as four minutes into Vysehrad, and some slurring of the texture at eight minutes. Talich’s is a transitional style, employing romantic “slides” and emphatic dynamic pressure at phrase endings, yet he is a modernist in the manner of both Nikisch and Toscanini, driving his rhythms hard and unfolding phrases without any “intrusive” personality.
What impresses most about traversing all six tone-poems of the cycle must be the directness and sincerity of expression, the nobility of the dramatic line. We begin with the national bard, Lumir, plying his lyre and invoking the Muses to bestow on his themes epic themes and heroic journeys, all of which pertain to the national character of his native land. By the time the Vltava (the Moldau) rushes past The High Castle of Vysehrad, we have become enamored of the natural and supernatural powers imbued in the rich Czech soil. The elegant marcato that Talich adds to the village wedding-dance as the river passes by dissipates into the almost static nocturne that describes light and shadow on the water’s surface. The Amazon fiend, Sarka, opens hysterically; then, in a rather stately fashion, the sweeping music proceeds with the narrative of knights unknowingly riding to their own slaughter. Strong clarinet work leads to several, powerful exclamations that will later erupt, first into melos then into savage frenzy. From Bohemia’s Meadows and Forests rushes at us, a huge paean to Nature, pure Wordsworth and Thoreau. The flutes chirp and sing; then, a vivid fugal section from which another, virile hymn will emerge. Delicate and potent at once, the inscription testifies to a wonderful color-discipline Talich built into this ensemble, a rival with Stokowski’s work in Philadelphia. The last two sections, Tabor and Blanik, exploit the Hussite motto that forms a huge part of this music’s ethos; they, too, eventually dovetail into motifs we have had earlier, heroically embracing the monumental High Castle. Despite the ceaseless crackle and swish of the pressings, I enjoyed this incarnation of Talich’s Smetana cycle; but then, I yield to every temptation to hear this marvelous conductor.
— Gary Lemco
[There certainly weren’t any works of such immense size being recorded in North America in 1929!…Ed.]