Album Reviews

Smetana – M� Vlast

(LSO Live) UK release date: 03 October 2005

From the opening plucked harp chords of Vysehrad to the massive closure of Blanik, this latest release from Sir Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra of Smetana’s M� vlast or My Fatherland on the LSO Live label is a triumph of technical finesse and style.

I remember the first of the concerts in May on which this recording is based as one of the most exciting events of last season, and the most remarkable achievement of this disc is its successful communication of the palpable danger one sensed in the live performance.

These remarkable players seem to have endless energy, matching the effort and concentration put in by our greatest living conductor nearly every time he appears with them.

Davis’ reading of this score is particularly well-paced, with the right amount of space in the first three movements and a suitable drive for the final three.

The six movements which make up Smetana’s Ma vlast depict aspects of ‘the Czech spirit’, and the work as a whole constitutes the quintessence of nineteenth-century Nationalism in music. The composer’s tribute to his country is rarely heard in its entirety, with only the second movement, Vltava, being really well known.

Yet when it is played with as much persuasiveness and verve as here, the whole cycle of mini-tone poems is much more powerful. The effect in May was almost operatic, and the six vivid scenes of Czech life come to life just as successfully in the recording.

Vysehrad is spaciously played, with both tremendous ensemble rubato playing in tutti sections and evocative wind solos creating interest throughout.

Vltava is especially lovely, the long wind and string lines weaving about to suggest the river, whilst the tale of Sarka, the wronged lover, has enormous punch and sounds strikingly modern in this visceral reading.

From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields has never sounded more haunting, its spooky chromatic opening eventually giving way to a broader evocation of beautiful Bohemia.

The depiction of the battle and defeat of the Hussite warriors in the final two movements challenges Smetana to his strongest statement of national pride, using a stern chorale melody on meaty brass instruments to project his opposition to the oppression of the Czech people. Tabor is given a remarkably brisk performance which the LSO strings deal with nimbly, whilst the lead straight into Blanik maintains the tension; again, the strings are notably magnificent in the contrapuntal textures.

For those that attended the original concerts, this is an essential document of a great evening of music-making, whilst the disc becomes the benchmark recording – and a bargain-priced one at that – of a work that is more spoken of than performed, for any serious record collector. And that’s the beauty of LSO Live.

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