Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded live at performances in Vienna’s Musikverein between 3 and 7 November 2001
Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield
Reviewed: February 2004
CD No: RCA RED SEAL 82876 54331 2 (2 CDs)
Duration: 83 minutes
Following on from his Dvorák recordings emanating from Amsterdam (most recently the Piano Concerto with Aimard), on his former label, Teldec (Warner), Nikolaus Harnoncourt turns from Bruckner with the Vienna Philharmonic to Bohemian music, Bedrich Smetana’s cycle of six tone poems, Má vlast (My Country), which includes that quintessential example of programme music, Vltava, which follows the two tributaries of Bohemia’s major river through their conjoining and bubbly trajectory to Prague itself.
But Má vlast is so much more than Vltava.The opening harp duet, subtly ringing out the theme of the mountain fortress of Vysehrad, implants the seeds for the whole work. That theme returns again in Vltava as the river passes the mountain fortress, and is reprised at the very end of the cycle, in Blaník, associated with the Hussite heroes who, although defeated, are lying underground ready to do battle for Bohemia in future.Harnoncourt places his harps antiphonally, as he does his violins, so the opening has an added sense of spaciousness. As it happens, Smetana dispenses with the second harp after Vysehrad and the remaining harp after Vltava. In the first complete performance of Má vlast I saw, with the Czech Philharmonic under Vaclav Neumann at the 1981 Edinburgh International Festival, the interval was after Sárka, when the harps were removed from the stage!
Every bar illustrates that Harnoncourt is passionate about this music, and the Vienna Philharmonic plays magnificently for him. He also provides his own liner notes (not the usual interview, but a fairly detailed musicological survey of each of the six constituent parts, with musical examples and perhaps an over reliance in quoting bar numbers), where he makes the interesting point In Bohemia’s Woods and Fields finds Smetana introducing a German theme, “which reminds us that Bohemians and Germans lived side-by-side for hundreds of years.” And yet, part of the impetus for the composition was the growing nationalist feeling to be free of the German imperial yoke, and from it sprung the Czech school – Dvorák of course, as well as Janácek, Suk and Martinu. Certainly the “impassioned dialogue” between Sárka and the hero Ctirad who falls into her trap is like Mahler, reminding us that Mahler himself was Bohemian (rather than Smetana had fallen under Austro-German influences).
Much more idiomatic than Levine’s recording of Má vlast with the same orchestra, Harnoncourt’s belief in this work and his players is completely persuasive. That his tempi are sometimes surprising is indicated by the necessity to issue the performance on two CDs (each illustrated by colourful Czech clock faces), whereas all comparable recordings are on one. A quick look, by comparison, at Rafael Kubelik’s last recording (Supraphon 11 1208-2) – his emotional return to Prague in 1990 after the Velvet Revolution for the traditional opening of the Prague Spring Festival on Smetana’s birthday, 12 May – shows Harnoncourt roughly a minute or so longer in every piece, save for Vysehrad where the difference is a few seconds.
But when listening to these CDs, the music doesn’t seem to be slow, only noticeable with the rather stately, almost too contained, climax of Blaník, although that is compensated for by the seeming haste of the frenetico (taken very literally by Harnoncourt) at the end of Sárka, which is breathless, yet completely apt given the mayhem the Amazon’s are inflicting on the drugged men-folk by way of revenge.
For anyone who loves this work, Harnoncourt demands to be heard; for those that are discovering it for the first time, his reading may be too individual on certain points, but it is gorgeously conceived and executed, with responsive and reflective playing, great instrumental clarity and a natural recording bloom. I hope it won’t be long before he is invited to Prague with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra to open a future Prague Spring. That would be worth making a trip for.