Smetana Má Vlast/Václav Talich

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Smetana
Má vlast [My Country]

Czech Philharmonic Orchestra
Václav Talich

Recorded by Supraphon on 10-12 & 21 June and 2-3 July 1954 in the Dvořák Hall of the Rudolfinum, Prague


Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson

Reviewed: July 2007
CD No: NAXOS 8.111237
Duration: 75 minutes

I have known this interpretation over many years and have never tired of it. It is difficult to imagine greater authenticity. Václav Talich (1883-1961) recorded this music three times: in 1929, 1941 and finally at these sessions in 1954. The booklet note helpfully give the timings of each, which are 79, 73 and 75 minutes respectively.

These are essentially Czech readings and this is well displayed by Talich’s rhythmic subtlety. It is difficult to explain how it is that a great musician is able to instil an essentially national feeling into the music of his own country but it seems to be a mysterious musical truth. One analogy is the essentially Viennese flavour that can be brought to the music of Johann Strauss by great compatriot conductors. I might go as far as to say that Václav Talich is to Czech music as Clemens Krauss is to Austrian.

Some of the greatest strengths in this interpretation of these six marvellously structured tone poems lie in the treatment of the dance scenes and the other examples of dance rhythms that creep into the music from time to time. One of my favourite episodes is the peasant-dance section in ‘Vltava’. Before any authentic flavour can be instilled, the tempo needs to be relaxed – sadly, I have heard many a rushed performance. Talich sets a perfect tempo here and his inflections are eloquent. It is worth mentioning that a similarly convincing approach to this often-misunderstood passage is taken by Antoni Wit on another Naxos recording (8.550931). Here a Polish conductor is directing a Polish orchestra, but the essential ‘Czechness’ is there and, interestingly, Wit chooses a rather slower tempo to good effect.

Talich’s recordings stand as historical documents, so it is not really appropriate to compare them with more recent recordings except in terms of interpretation. A good example of a similar approach, in terms of eloquence and, apart from a slightly slower reading of ‘Vyšehrad’ is to be found on the excellent 1990 Supraphon version (11 0957-2) by Jiří Bělohlávek.

From the gorgeous harp solo that begins this opening section, Talich grips the imagination. This is perhaps the most essentially Czech item of the cycle and the breathlessly grand sequence scored in a brilliantly Wagnerian manner that commences at around 8’20” is the epitome of implied Nationalistic triumph. The surge imparted to ‘Vltava’ is immensely appropriate and the final sequence as the great river flows out to sea is very moving. Talich’s elegance and beauty of line does not prevent him from painting the brutal story of ‘Šarka’ in a fiercely dramatic manner. The intense opening of ‘From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields’ has a strange moment of initial cloudiness but becomes increasingly joyful with a magnificently rowdy folk-dance sequence. ‘Tábor’, with its Hussite Hymn, followed by the subsequent grand assurance of ‘Blaník’ makes these pieces, in philosophical terms, musical twins. Talich’s approach underlines this, achieving triumph without pomposity.

‘Tábor’ finishes in the manner that ‘Blaník’ commences; the final phrase of the fifth poem is followed in strict tempo and exact rhythm by the start of the sixth. It therefore seems reasonable for the two pieces to be linked in performance. Both Bělohlávek and Wit make a short break; other conductors make a much longer pause. On Naxos Historical there is no pause between the pieces, but on Supraphon’s own CD transfer of the same recording (SU 3826-2) seven seconds of post die-away silence is provided. We cannot tell the conductor’s intention from the original recording because ‘Blaník’ began the start of a vinyl disc. So what did Talich intend and how did he perform this in the concert hall?

This brings us to comparing the relative quality of the two transfers. There is no doubt that the Supraphon has the brighter, clearer sound with a touch less background. Much as I admire the recording, I realise that there is a certain amount of compression at climaxes, but the Supraphon transfer deals with this problem more effectively. A good example is that immensely powerful moment of grandeur just over halfway through ‘Vyšehrad’ – here the Naxos sounds rather cloudier. Neither transfer does any justice to the triangle in Vltava but this instrument emerges more clearly later on. The Supraphon is also superior in terms of dynamic range.

It is certainly possible to enjoy this magnificent music-making on the Naxos copy, which represents a fitting tribute to the original engineering. But the cleaner sound of the Supraphon might make it worth the trouble of looking for a copy of that version – although it is more expensive than the Naxos.

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