Smetana
Má vlast [Vyšehrad; Vltava; Šárka; Z českých luh û a hájú (From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields); Tábor; Blaník]

London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis
I’ve now heard 'My Country' three times at a London concert. The LSO’s previous one under Jiří Bělohlávek was surprisingly sober for a Czech-born musician, and not helped by taking an interval; Leonard Slatkin’s Philharmonia Orchestra account formed an epic second half and included a thrilling 'Šárka' and a brilliantly-timed segue between 'Tábor' and 'Blaník'.
No interval with Sir Colin thought I; after all, he plays "The Dream of Gerontius" and Berlioz's "Romeo and Juliet" straight through. Wrong! The 30-minute interval, after 'Šárka', lost the plot somewhat. Smetana’s nationalistic cycle of six symphonic poems, which celebrates Czechoslovakia’s landmarks, myths and history, is constructed in three lots of two. Thus 'Vyšehrad', the high rock that marks the Vltava’s entry into Prague, goes in tandem with the river’s very own musical picture that follows. The man-hating adventures of 'Šárka' take place in a wood; then Smetana evokes the Czech countryside itself. 'Tábor', the stronghold of the Hussites, the defenders of Czech identity, is musically linked with 'Blaník', the hollow hill where defeated Hussites take refuge, sleeping for centuries until their nation calls.
Sir Colin didn’t attach the last two (which would have avoided the ’here we are again’ start to 'Blaník'); come the resolute closing bars, he re-introduced Tabor’s Hussite chorale with a jauntiness that suggested it had strayed from a comic-opera. Throughout this likeable performance, Colin Davis’s conducting strengths were heard to advantage – seriousness of purpose, a relish of dramatic and eloquent phrasing, as well as charm and a fire-in-the-belly bravura that, when it takes wing, as it did in the polka of 'From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields, grabs the attention, and which found a delightfully dipso-counterpart in the three-in-a-bar dance as soldiers indulge the booze – just before Šárka’s followers wipe them out! Come this bloody denouement Davis’s foot found the brake rather than the accelerator.
Otherwise, solemnity, majesty and drama distinguished 'Vyšehrad'; a powerful sense of physical movement, nobility and moonlit radiance coloured 'Vltava'; a relish of Berliozian touches of orchestration informed Šárka'; a vivid suggestion of grandeur and eeriness was conjured for the 'Woods and Fields'; and Davis displayed real identification with the Czech nation’s defiance and pride in 'Tábor' and 'Blaník'. The latter’s pastoral woodwind interlude - the warriors’ long-term slumber - was beautifully and tenderly played; but then the whole LSO was in superb form, not least the strings – especially in the unanimous pointing of fast music. A shame that there were no microphones present for what proved a thoroughly enjoyable and spirit-raising evening.

 

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