Smetana Má vlast
Sir Colin Davis has long been noted as an interpreter of Czech music but this is his first recording of Smetana’s great cycle, completed at the end of the composer’s tragic life. Recorded live, the disc offers a warm, incisive reading which brings out the drama as well as the poetry behind each portrait of Smetana’s homeland, fully integrating the final two symphonic poems, ‘Tábor’ and ‘Blaník’, noisier than the rest and written rather as an afterthought.
It is true that the Barbican acoustic brings some penalty in the recorded sound against the fuller and more brilliantly recorded Chandos version, made under studio conditions in Detroit with Neeme Järvi. Yet in places there are advantages to having a slightly more distanced sound, as in the evocative central section of ‘Vltava’, when the shimmering repeated figure on woodwind punctuated by harp chords, representing the play of nymphs in the river (track 2, 5’54”), is given more mystery. In any case the sound is more than acceptable, with excellent detail, and no less agreeable than the live Kubelík recording from the 1990 Prague Spring Festival that marked his return to his homeland after more than 40 years’ exile.
That great emotional occasion is reflected in the surging warmth of the performance, notably in the big patriotic themes. Kubelík’s more relaxed speed in the central polka section of ‘From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields’ allows much more rhythmic spring; Davis, by contrast, chooses a surprisingly fast tempo, making it sound like a furiant in polka rhythm (track 4, 7’57”). That fast tempo at least has the advantage of allowing him to maintain the same speed when, immediately following, the dance is set in repeated ostinato against a more lyrical idea.
Generally, Davis’s speeds are a degree broader than those of the two rivals, often with more flexible phrasing, vividly conveying the spontaneity of a live occasion. The clinching point in favour of the new disc, as with all LSO Live issues, is the reasonable price, making it in every way a first-rate bargain.