Jiří Bělohlávek passed away on May 31 last year at the age of seventy-one. It is appropriate that this memorial issue from Decca should commemorate his memory with Smetana’s cycle of symphonic poems, Má vlast (My Country), describing landmarks and events indigenous to Czechoslovakia and a perennial in the Czech Philharmonic’s calendar.
Compiled from two evenings to open the Prague Spring Festival of 2014, yet giving the illusion of being a single undoctored performance, Bělohlávek leads his dedicated and eager musicians in an account (seeing the work whole) that satisfies on every level, played superbly, and recorded with a realism that places the grateful listener in the best seat of the Smetana Hall.
In terms of tempo, phrasing, dynamics and colour (and any other musical ingredient that comes to mind) – and story-telling, whether geographical or legend – Bělohlávek and the Czech Phil conjure beauty, drama and patriotic fervour of the highest level. The current of the ‘Vltava’ is perfectly judged, so too its magical moonlit episode, and when the river becomes more-rapidly flowing into Prague, before heading to the sea, the effect is momentous. Following which the warrior ‘Šárka’ takes bloody revenge on all men-folk after betrayal by her lover – vividly brought off here if lacking the abandon of massacre in the coda, if eminently musical and wholesome. The imposing landscape of ‘Bohemia’s Woods and Fields’, and its mysteries, are especially well-handled, ending with a bucolic knees-up.
Sometimes the final pair of Symphonic Poems (separate pieces but thematically linked, not least by a Hussite chorale) can drag, but the very opening of ‘Tábor’ promises much (just as the ceremonial harp-playing at the beginning of ‘Vyšehrad’ had signalled this as a significant Má vlast) and – rightly – Bělohlávek carries straight into ‘Blaník’, tension maintained, to continue the struggles, eloquences (wonderful woodwinds) and thrills, ending in triumph: I can only imagine that the applause (excised) was enthusiastic and heartfelt.
Of course one listens with a certain sadness – seventy-one is no age for anyone to leave us, and I had the pleasure of interviewing Bělohlávek on a couple of occasions – but I found much to enjoy and enlighten here. This version of Má vlast can join those by Karel Ančerl, Rafael Kubelík and Václav Talich (all Czech Philharmonic, Kubelík also recording Má vlast in Boston, Munich and Vienna) and there is a fascinating Moscow version courtesy of Fedoseyev.
To close, a mention for Bělohlávek’s Czech Philharmonic set of Dvořák’s sixteen Slavonic Dances (Opuses 46 & 72) – food and drink to this orchestra – that are full of character, fire and affection [Decca 478 9458].