Colin Davis Má Vlast

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

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 10 May, 2005
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Time was when the six-part tableau that is Smetana’s Má vlast was a concert-hall rarity – unless, of course, you made to a trip to the Prague Spring Festival for the obligatory first-night performance. Sir Colin Davis first gave it complete in March 2001 as part of the London Symphony Orchestra’s “Bohemian Spring” series.

Although they form a coherent overall sequence, the symphonic poems of Má vlast are linked more by intention than design – though the ‘motto’ theme itself, given by the two harps at the beginning of ‘Vyšehrad’, returns at the end of the second and sixth sections, and – together with the Hussite chorale that permeates the last two of the sequence – acts as a unifying element across what are otherwise sharply defined pieces. Thus ‘Vyšehrad’ itself depicts the rocky outcrop on which Bohemian warriors of legend had their stronghold and which – for Czech nationalists of the era – still resonated with their triumphs and defeats. Davis had the measure of the heroic central section – though, in the more reflective outer sections, he could have evoked a still keener sense of the past recollected in tranquillity.

Perhaps because ‘Vltava’ had always been the most popular of the cycle, Davis shaped the swinging main theme that depicts the course of the river a little hesitantly – with an awkward rhythmic scoop going into a rather self-conscious polka. The moonlight interlude was raptly phrased, and the passage illustrating St John’s Rapids built up a powerful momentum prior to the affirmative – but never bombastic – peroration as the river passes through Prague.

Tautest and most dramatic of the cycle, ‘Sárka’ tells of the eponymous female warrior who – betrayed by a man – duly ensnares Ctirad and his soldiers, slaughtering them. Davis could have brought greater yearning to the love music, but the theatrical moment when the heroine sounds her horn caught the breath just as it should, and the final onslaught was viscerally dispatched. Equally impressive (following the interval) was ‘From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields’, orchestrally the most imaginative of the cycle – and whatever he is on record as having said about Smetana, Janáček put its shimmering opening sequence to productive use on numerous occasions. Davis brought an eerie quality to the angular string fugato at its centre, and worked the distinct thematic elements up to an exhilarating close.

Having composed these four pieces during 1874-5, Smetana added two further sections in 1878-9. While it would be wrong to read the composer’s by then prolonged deafness into the actual music, these latter pieces have an austerity that suggests an increased focus on essentials – and to which Davis responded by emphasising formal cohesion accordingly. This paid dividends in the case of ‘Tábor’, named after the stronghold of the Hussite dissenters and usually the most rhetorical of the cycle, whose gaunt resolve in the face of adversity can often test the endurance of the listener. Not here, however, with Davis tightening the structural ratchet appreciably as the Hussite motif carries all in its wake. It would be interesting to hear ‘Blaník’ follow on without a pause, as these pieces are so thematically related as to form a single entity. Even so, Davis ensured their continuity was audibly maintained, while making expressive space for the pastoral interlude in which the Czech warriors’ mythical mountain retreat is fondly evoked. In their mixture of descriptive and symphonic elements, the final minutes can easily loose impetus, but Davis never lost sight of the intended outcome – with the main motifs gradually coalescing into an apotheosis as uninhibitedly joyful as it is triumphant.

With all departments of the orchestra at their most committed (not least the percussion – cymbals and triangle must have more to do over these 75 minutes than the remainder of the 19th-century repertoire combined!), this was a performance as responsive to Smetana’s questing ambition as to his powers of depiction. This performance was an impressive tribute to Clive Gillinson: his departure at the end of this season was marked prior to the start of the second half, and whose 21 years as Managing Director of the LSO has been one of advancement and consolidation in equal and reciprocal measure.

The LSO and Colin Davis play Má vlast again on 15 May, by when they will have played the work twice at the Prague Spring Festival.

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