SMETANA Má Vlast (Bělohlávek)
Omnivorous as Jiří Bělohlávek was in his repertoire choices, his greatest contribution as a conductor was to the music of his countrymen. So it’s fitting that this, the Czech Philharmonic’s first album release following Bělohlávek’s death last summer, should feature the most proudly Czech work of all: Smetana’s Má vlast. Taken from performances that Bělohlávek conducted at the Prague Spring Festival in 2014, two years after returning to the orchestra as chief conductor, it’s a testament not only to Bělohlávek’s skill as an interpreter but also to the way he honed that skill over the course of his long career.
Here is an altogether more assured voice than that showcased on Bělohlávek’s 1990 Má vlast recording with the same orchestra: warmer, more subtle and more attuned to the capabilities of these outstanding musicians. The flute solos in the first two bars of ‘Vltava’ are meticulously articulated. The opening brass harmonies of ‘Vyšehrad’ simply glow. And overall there’s a sense of lyrical ease, of a conductor so at home in this idiom that he’s prepared to be swept along by the musical tide.
At points, it’s a little too genial. 'Šárka’ is on the slow side and could do with more of the adrenalin coursing through Colin Davis’s white-knuckle rendition with the London Symphony Orchestra, or any one of Rafael Kubelík’s recordings. Likewise, for sheer drama Bělohlávek’s ‘Tábor’ has been outmatched in Jakub Hrůša’s 2016 album with the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra.
But Bělohlávek clearly knew that Smetana, far from being a cheap purveyor of catchy melodies and moment-to-moment thrills, was a sure-footed musical architect, and this recording plays the long game. Note how he gradually ramps up the tension in ‘Tábor’, and manages to make ‘Blaník’ sound like a genuine culmination of the entire cycle, rather than an afterthought. Note, too, how he marries that sense of underlying structure with surface detail. Not even Kubelík or Davis bring such spider-silk delicacy to the fugal central section of ‘From Bohemia’s Meadows and Forests’. It all makes for a satisfying listen, and one very true to Bělohlávek: not a fireworks display but a showcase for sincere, thoughtful and polished musicianship. An appropriate release to be remembered by.