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Szell conducts Czech Music = SMETANA: String Quartet No. 1 in E minor “From My Life” (orch. Szell); The Bartered Bride – Overture; Vltava (The Moldau) from Ma Vlast; DVORAK: Carnival Overture, Op. 92; Four Slavonic Dances: C Major, Op. 46, No. 1; A-flat Major, Op. 46, No. 3; E minor, Op. 72, No. 2; C Major, Op. 72, No. 7 – Pristine Audio PASC 543, 76:37 [www.pristineclassical.com] ****:

Hungarian conductor George Szell (1897-1970) had already established himself as a major talent in music, both as a keyboard player and conductor, when WW II broke out, and he came to the US while en route to Europe after a tour in Australia.  Calling himself a Czech national—likely because Hungary had declared itself an Axis power—Szell sought employment in America, and he eventually accepted an invitation from Arturo Toscanini to guest-conduct the NBCSO in 1941, and the program before us derives from the 8 March from Studio 8-H.  Szell himself orchestrated Smetana’s First Quartet to expand its sonic possibilities, and he went on to record his version with the Cleveland Orchestra later, 26 April 1949.

The high spirits of The Bartered Bride Overture belong, rather ironically, the incessant bustle of the strings of the opening, which represent the layers of local village gossip humming at full speed among the peasantry. The various agogic shifts and sudden eruptions of national buoyancy Szell and the NBC gobble up without a moment’s pause, with the NBC battery in wonderful tilt to support the cleverly nuanced canons that run their fluid course.  The double-tonguing from the NBC trumpets proves no less impressive. Szell then applies a presto coda that manages to stay together, for all of the fury and manic impishness of the composer’s witty imagination.

Smetana

Portrait of Smetana

Despite the personal anguish that suffuses the From My Life quartet– given its eventual depiction of the composer’s oncoming deafness – it radiates a deeply bucolic and intimate pantheism of spirit. The music’s breadth and emotional sweep obviously appealed to Szell’s desire to expand its “musical horizons,” as he expressed it. With added brass, cymbals, and tympani, the surging gestures in the first movement Allegro vivo appassionato paint a ferocious canvas rife with a natural melodic gift.  The second movement – a rousing Polka – conveys the same ebullient, rustic energy we find in the corresponding section of Vltava. The trumpet and snare-drum work does seem a mite overdone, more appropriate to a full village band’s celebrating some visiting VIP. The third movement, opening with a plaintive cello solo, Largo sostenuto, gives us an extended love song – at times, a dirge—that too reaches de profundis into the composer’s earnest passions. The famous finale, Vivace, interrupts its rambunctious energies to remind us that in the midst of life we are in death.  At the very peak of festivity, the music shrieks of the onslaught of the maddening pitch that would undo Smetana’s creative life. The opening measures of movement one return, now serving as a “fate” motif in the sense that both Beethoven and Tchaikovsky knew all too well.

Antonin Dvorak

Portrait of Antonin Dvorak

Dvorak’s natural esprit has five offerings–chosen to celebrate Dvorak’s centenary, 1841—the first of which, the 1891 Carnival Overture, derives from his trilogy Nature, Life, and Love.  This zesty overture embodies the life-force, and its capacity for melody as well as for rhythmic animation certify the touch of a master orchestrator.  The minor key second thematic group proves lusciously evocative of the Czech landscape. English horn, clarinet, flute and harp contribute to the bucolic magic. Szell soon turns the enterprise into a colossal etude in orchestral discipline, the speed of execution not the least of the musical miracles wrought before us. Thence to the four Slavonic Dances:  the opening C Major Furiant has hearts and feet a-patter; the A-flat Polka has the easy gait of long village dresses as they move along the dance floor without a ripple before the explosions of the couple’s lifting their partners; the famous E minor Dumka oozes nostalgia grand enough to have warranted  a Kreisler transcription for violin; the Serbian Kolo that concludes the set projects its own divine madness, abetted in this by Szell’s blizzard tempos. The NBC string and horn attacks warrant repeated auditions of these inspired homages to Bohemia.

I suppose no self-respecting celebration of the Czech spirit can ignore Smetana’s Ma Vlast, of which the ubiquitous Vltava reigns supreme. The river’s journey to Prague enjoys a luscious patina, luxurious in its main theme and its various escapades through hunt, dance, and nature country, through the rapids, and finally cascading to the High Castle and outward to the sea. The hunting horn motifs in the second section look hard at Wagner.  The lovely nocturne intimates any number of floras lining the banks or basking in erotic eddies. The momentum of the rapids invokes the main theme in glorious Technicolor, and the colossal waves hit the delta around Vysehrad with stupendous force, only to dissipate in a long “tracking shot” whose perspective embraces the whole of the mighty symbol of a nation’s energy.

—Gary Lemco