The Peasant Woman
Fanfares for Shakespeare’s Richard III
March for the Shakespeare Festival
Recorded 8 & 9 March 2007 in Studio 7, BBC Broadcasting House, Manchester
Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson
Reviewed: October 2007
CD No: CHANDOS CHAN 10413
Duration: 76 minutes
The recording engineer for this attractive programme of Smetana’s orchestral music is Stephen Rinker. He obtains stunningly good sound – Chandos would do well to employ him beyond BBC Philharmonic recordings from Manchester. The days have gone when recordings had a ‘company’ quality; nowadays it is so usual to employ freelance engineers that each new recording seems to have its own characteristic. The booklet refers to the “Chandos sound” and although it is interesting to read that 24-bit recording is used and it gives a 48dB greater dynamic range, the true test of excellent recording is not dependent on the extra refinement of the equipment, welcome though that may be, but is more closely related to how well the engineer balances the instruments. Rinker has got it spectacularly right.
In some ways I am reminded of the startling realism of the Mercury recordings made by the legendary engineer Robert Fine. The lower end of the audio spectrum is particularly realistic – magnificently weighty but also very clear. Not only is there stereophonic realism but the distancing of instruments is natural: for example the forceful timpani solos during Richard III, Hakon Jarl and throughout the Grand Overture strike the ear with thrilling force while still emanating from their expected rear-of-orchestra position. Timpani are difficult instruments to record but here their realism is exemplary.
The colourfulness of the recording does admirable justice to the music, much of which is unreasonably neglected, although Rafael Kubelík paid some attention to the symphonic poems. Hakon Jarl seems to have had some general currency and Prague Carnival is sometimes used as a make-weight for Czech programmes. This latter holds its appeal because of its Czech dance-rhythms and the composer’s hints of self-quotation.
Smetana’s ability to compose triumphal music without ever sounding bombastic is everywhere evident. The Overture is full of melodic ideas but is constructed in a loose version of Sonata form thus giving a classical feeling. Strikingly colourful timpani episodes have a very important part to play and, in this performance, the writing for the weighty brass is made to sound amazingly agile.
In several works, march-rhythms are favoured – as in Hakon Jarl, where King Olaf heads the Christian army. An impressive example of Smetana’s penchant for this is to be found in March for the Shakespeare Festival. The great conductor, composer and musicologist Jarmil Burghauser recorded this work years ago in a magnificent performance but I have not encountered it since. Noseda demonstrates convincingly how this grand celebratory march should be presented: its placement at the end of the programme is ideal and the delightful spring to the rhythms achieved makes this something of a tour de force. By holding the tempo steady, the triumphal closing melody becomes all the more noble for not being overstated.
This is an exciting recording. It is surprising how rarely Smetana’s music is presented, beyond Má vlast. The Bartered Bride and some chamber and keyboard music. It’s good news that this release is labelled Volume 1, for I should be delighted if these same forces will give us Smetana’s neglected Triumphal Symphony.