Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884)
Má Vlast (1874-79)
Czech Philharmonic / Semyon Bychkov
rec. live, 25-29 January, 2021, Dvořák Hall of the Rudolphinum, Prague
Pentatone PTC5187203 [81]

Prompted, presumably, by the bicentenary of the birth of Bedřich Smetana, I understand that the Czech Philharmonic has designated 2024 as a Year of Czech Music during which the principal focus of their programming will be the music of the orchestra’s home country. A side effect of that may be a temporary hiatus in their ongoing Mahler symphony cycle with Semyon Bychkov but in the overall scheme of things, that’s not a huge issue.

Má Vlast, Smetana’s cycle of six symphonic poems, occupies a particular place in the hearts of Czech music lovers. One only has to listen to the extraordinary live performance conducted by Vaclav Talich on 5 June 1939 to gain some insight into that. That performance was given during the inaugural Prague May Music Festival, not many months after the Germans had completed their occupation of Czechoslovakia. The performance itself, by the Czech Philharmonic, is a very fine one but it’s the circumstances that give the occasion and the music-making a unique atmosphere. Not only is there fervent applause after each of the six poems but also at the end the entire audience – and, I’m sure, the players also – spontaneously break into an unaccompanied and heartfelt rendition of the Czech national anthem. It’s enormously moving (Supraphon 4965-2). Just  as affecting – and equally fine from a musical point of view as well as being in much better sound – is the 1990 live performance in which Rafael Kubelik conducted the Czech Philharmonic when he returned to his native land after long years of self-imposed exile to conduct the opening concert of that year’s Prague Spring Festival (review).

Of course, neither Czech orchestras in general, nor the Czech Philharmonic in particular, have a monopoly on Má Vlast on disc. However, probably more by accident than design it seems that most of the recordings I own have been made by the Czech Philharmonic. Now, the orchestra’s present Chief Conductor, Semyon Bychkov has recorded it with them.  Approaching this recording, I noticed with interest that Bychkov’s overall timing for the cycle is 81:21. By contrast, some Czech conductors of the past have taken a little less time. The aforementioned live Talich performance lasts for 77 minutes while Karel Ančerl’s 1963 performance, made in the studio, I think, comes in at 75:05 (review). More recently, the 1990 live Kubelik account, referenced above, lasted for 77:45. And, indeed, a more recent version by Jiří Bělohlávek comes in at 76:52 (review). I admire all of those versions, albeit I expressed some reservations about the Bělohlávek when I reviewed it. I mention them not to implicitly criticise Bychkov. I have a recollection, though, that when I reviewed a version by Jakub Hrůša, which I liked, there were some who thought he was a bit too expansive; his timing of 81:11 was virtually identical to Bychkov and, perhaps significantly, took a little longer than an earlier recording Hrůša had made with the Czech Philharmonic (review). I mention this up-front in case readers see the overall timing and think Bychkov may be too expansive. All I can say is that at no time in my listening did I feel he was taking too long over the music, though he definitely allows space, where appropriate, for expressive ends.

Bychkov contributes a short foreword to the booklet in which he writes, rather movingly, about the concept of Homeland, referencing his own experiences: he was born in Russia, emigrated to the USA and is now a long-time resident of France. I didn’t actually read his little essay before listening to the music but I think it gives context to the emotional engagement with Smetana’s music that is in evidence here. That engagement is apparent in the playing too. Gone are the days which the Czech Philharmonic had its own unique sound with tangy woodwinds and vibrato-rich horns and brass. That said, today’s Czech Philharmonic undeniably bring a special authority to Czech music in general and to this score in particular.

I warmed to this performance right from the opening of ‘Vyšehrad’ where we hear the harp solo played absolutely beautifully; the player conveys a genuine sense of bardic narration. As Michael Beckerman points out in his useful notes, the thematic material for this tone poem mostly derives from the harp solo. However, in a good performance – and this is definitely a good performance – one is not conscious of thematic limitation. Throughout the duration of ‘Vyšehrad’ I was aware of top-drawer orchestral playing and that the recorded sound gives a welcome sense of space around the orchestra. Happily, these characteristics pervade the whole cycle. So, too, does Bychkov’s flair for tone-painting and his attention to detail; as an example of the detail, try the subdued, tense passage between 10:00 and 11:39 in ‘Vyšehrad’. By the time the first tone poem was over, Bychkov and the orchestra had really drawn me in to Smetana’s music.

At the start of ‘Vltava’ I love the way the flutes conjure up an aural impression of sparkling waters at the source of what is to become the mighty Moldau. Bychkov and his players take us down the course of the river, and along the way the polka danced by merrymaking peasants is sprightly; the dancers are having fun. My favourite passage in this tone poem is the nocturnal passage (here 5:52 – 8:20) where the flutes burble gently under a soft, soaring violin line; Bychkov balances this epoxide with scrupulous care. The other passage which is worthy of specific comment is the music that illustrates the river surging through the rapids; hereabouts the music has exciting turbulence, after which Bychkov gives us a majestic glimpse of Vyšehrad as we pass by.

‘Šárka’ opens with biting drama in the playing. Later, the music depicting prince Ctirad’s rapture for the deceitful lady warrior is voiced with suitable ardour, but the fierce drama returns as Šárka and her female followers slay Ctirad and his men as they sleep. All this comes over very convincingly in the present performance. ‘Z českých luhů a hájů’ (From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields) is another success. I find it a little puzzling that Smetana should use a minor key at several points in his depiction of the Bohemian countryside, especially at the very beginning; maybe he was seeking to suggest something a bit deeper than a straightforward genial pastorale? It matters not; both the darker and lighter sides of rural Bohemia come across very well in this performance. Bychkov and his players bring out all the light and shade in the music. Their performance is colourful and full of life.

The opening of ‘Tábor’ is as suspenseful as it should be; as I listened to the first few pages, I felt that the music sounded like the stuff of legends. This tone poem depicts the base of the followers of John Hus during the Hussite wars of the fifteenth century and Smetana’s music calls for imaginative, vivid projection; that’s what we get here. As the tone poem unfolds, Smetana’s music is played with bite and intensity, just as it should be. This is a vivid and exciting account of ‘Tábor’, which is full of contrasts and dynamism. ‘Blaník’ seems to pick up where the previous piece left off. Here, Smetana depicts the legendary mountain within which St Wenceslas and his warriors sleep until such time as they awake and come to the defence of the Bohemian kingdom. (Small wonder that this resonated so strongly with Talich’s 1939 audience!) This last tone poem can seem a bit weaker than the others, I feel; the last few minutes can easily be overdone. That said, there’s a tender pastoral episode (2:34-5:14). This provides a lovely interlude; it features winning writing for the woodwind and horn principals and here the Czech Philharmonic players are absolutely outstanding. From about 9:48 onwards Smetana bangs the patriotic drum very strongly but after he’s taken his listener through Bohemia’s lands and legends, one can understand that. In this performance I think Bychkov doesn’t overplay his hand so any risk of banality is avoided; near the end, the return of the Hussite song from ‘Tábor’ joined with the ‘Vyšehrad’ theme has genuine grandeur.

I enjoyed this performance of Má Vlast very much indeed, The Czech Philharmonic plays superbly throughout. The musicians must know this music inside out but there’s never any trace of routine. Everything sounds fresh and exciting. I’m sure that Semyon Bychkov has encouraged the orchestra to approach the music as if it were new to them; certainly, he conducts with empathy and conviction.

I’ve been impressed by the sound quality on the Pentatone releases so far in the orchestra’s Mahler cycle. This present recording is just as successful, I think. There’s a nice, open quality to the sound and an abundance of detail is captured. Michael Beckerman’s notes are very helpful. He doesn’t make the mistake, which so many annotators do, of assuming that everyone who buys this CD will be familiar with the music; instead, he guides the listener through the key points of the music. My only criticism – a mild one – is that it’s a pity he didn’t say a little more about the historic or legendary background to the poems such as ‘Šárka’, ‘Tábor’ and ‘Blaník’.

If you don’t have a recording of Má Vlast in your collection, you can invest with confidence; but then move on to experience also one of the classic accounts by the likes of Talich, Ančerl or Kubelik.

John Quinn

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