Smetana Ma vlast four hands Supraphon SU37122

Déjà Review: this review was first published in July 2003 and the recording is still available.

Bedrich Smetana (1824-1884)
Má Vlast (1879, arr. piano four hands by the composer, 1880)
Igor Ardašev and Renata Ardaševová (piano four hands)
Supraphon SU37122 [73]

The Ardaševs play beautifully together — one is reminded of other excellent husband and wife teams such as ‘Alexander and Dakin’ and Ingeborg and Reimer Küchler. In addition, they make a striking looking couple, with Igor tall and stoic with Renata having exquisite large blue-grey eyes and long tawny hair. Igor studied with Paul Badura-Skoda and Rudolf Serkin, then won fifth place at the Moscow Tchaikovsky Competition as well as an amazingly long list of other honours. Renata studied at the Janáček Academy of Music and accumulated her own collection of medals before winning the International Chopin Competition and the Gordon Trust Prize in Glasgow.

Hearing this new version of this familiar and beloved music is so exciting to me that I’ve been playing this disk over and over all afternoon. The usual problem in performing this work is that the musical and dramatic climax is reached with #2, The Moldau, with a secondary climax with #4, From Bohemia’s Meadows and Forests. After that, most orchestral conductors let the intensity of the music fall off. The Ardaševs do a great job of re-building intensity toward the end of #6, Blaník, (Track 6) when Smetana brings the themes of all the poems together in a rich counterpoint to provide a grand coda. In orchestral recordings, only Vaclav Smetacek in 1981 was able to do so well.

Incredible it is to imagine that Smetana was completely deaf before he began work on Ma Vlast and never heard a single note of it.

These guys do a terrific job with all this, and the impact of the performance is all the greater because it becomes almost a chamber duet. The piano does not have the sweetness nor the dynamic range of a full orchestra, of course, so the fugue in #4 (Track 4) cannot be so hushed and mysterious as it is in a good orchestral performance. Nor can the piano sing the Big Tune of The Moldau (Track 2) so grandly as a big orchestral string section. But what we gain is the intimacy of just two performers who can play the work with a personal expression that makes an orchestra sound like a clumsy, clunking machine. Phrases can be shaped, inner voices clarified and rhythms accented beyond the capability of any orchestra. For instance, many orchestral performances get the timing wrong on the pizzicato violin accents in the first ten bars of #2 whereas the Ardaševs get it exactly right, of course. And they achieve more ominousness and spookiness in the beginning of Tábor (Track 5) than I’ve ever heard before.

Anyone who loves this music will want this recording to sit beside their favourite orchestral version.

Paul Shoemaker

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