SMETANA: Ma Vlast – ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Vienna/ Lovro von Matacic – Orfeo C 836 112B (2 CDs), TT: 87:04 [Distr. by Qualiton] **** :
Conductor Lovro von Matacic (1899-1985) deliberately approached the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra with the notion that his 15 January 1982 concert should comprise one work, Ma Vlast, relatively unknown outside of its native Czechoslovakia, where it is performed every year for Prague Spring on May 12, the anniversary of Smetana’s death. Conceived over a protracted three years, 1876-1876, the cycle of six symphonic poems means to celebrate the city of Prague in its opening two movements. But the music soon embraces legendary subjects, like Sarka the vengeful Amazon warrior; the legendary mountain Blanik, site of Saint Wenceslas and his knights; the Hussite nationalist movement in Tabor; and the natural setting in both The Moldau and From Bohemia’s Meadows and Forests. By having the last musical picture unite thematically with the Vysehrad Castle motif, a wonderful sense of artistic and national closure binds the work together. As Matacic insisted, the cycle remains “a symphonic masterpiece of unique color and density.”
A master of the old Vienna school, Matacic elicits feral playing from all of his forces, especially from the strings, horns, and tympani. An expansive approach to this music prevails; and so, the orchestra can indulge every facet of Smetana’s lush coloration and interior lines. By Matacic’s standard, even the classic renditions of Talich, Kubelik, and Ancerl seem rushed. The Bard Lumir invokes the Muses in his opening harp runs in Vysehrad, which soon becomes populated with knights and deeds worthy of Czech heraldry. Sarka, easily the most savage of the legendary subjects, enjoys ravishing rhythmic thrusts and brilliant intonation in the ORF woodwinds. Tabor realizes the militant spirit in Smetana, the Hussite movement here celebrated in startling metric combinations and incendiary colors in homage of the Jan Hus martyrdom in 1415. The ORF cello line and battery convince us that the miracle of freedom is at hand.
The continuity “suffers” because of the audience applause, but the war song then extends into Blanik, the scene of Saint Wenceslas’ arrival in his country’s time of need. The acuity of the cello and bass line will remind auditors of the deep response Koussevitzky drew from his Boston Symphony forces. The texture clears in order for the pomp and ceremony of the march to assume a clarion effect, literally purging the air of all forms of political miasma. Piccolo and triangle manage their own spectacular space. No accident that Matacic often led ensembles shared by Karajan, given their common monumentality of vision and their ability to call forth blazing virtuosity from their respective trumpets. Like Vltava, The Moldau, the music dovetails into the City of Prague, now become the Kingdom of Heaven, Mussorgsky’s Great Gate of Kiev. To call the last page a Slavonic Dance hardly begins to do justice to such exalted pageantry. For all I know, that Vienna audience is still clapping.
The historic restorations show a renewed vitality.