Jac van Steen and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra – Smetana’s Má vlast

Má Vlast

Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
Jac van Steen

Reviewed by: David Truslove

Reviewed: 24 January, 2024
Venue: The Lighthouse, Poole, Dorset

In recent years it has been customary to present Smetana’s national epic in its entirety, all six-tone poems at one sitting. Unlike the 2011 and 2019 Prom performances at the Royal Albert Hall (both of which included a Dvořák concerto), this singular account under Jac van Steen was given in two parts. While denying an uninterrupted journey with an interval, including an invitation to applaud between movements, this traversal of Bohemia’s ancient castles, heroic struggles and pastoral idylls came alive more as separate dramas, each defining event projected onto a video screen. One could have followed proceedings via the programme notes, but this experiment, we were told, was designed to help those unfamiliar with a work that had not been given in its entirety by the BSO for many years.

Presenting the work in two halves underlined a certain unevenness of inspiration, the unrelenting rabble-rousing of the hymnic ‘Tábor’ with its fiercely determined Hussite warriors proved somewhat wearisome, but its initial brooding was well caught, brass and timpani explosive in their pugnacious contributions. Elsewhere Smetana’s masterful depictions of Czech landscape and myth were all vividly illuminated, not least the brilliance of his orchestration and soloistic passages. In this, the BSO players were particularly impressive. Two flutes elegantly set in motion the babbling brooks of ‘Vltava’, the river’s progress passing a forest (brass to the fore), a peasant wedding (well calibrated dynamics) and onto an atmospheric moonlit scene (gossamer strings and playful woodwind) for the water nymphs. Then headlong past the rapids of St John with gathering momentum to conjure a river in spate if not quite bursting its banks.

Grandeur was uppermost in ‘Vyšehrad’, its imposing citadel and rocky outcrop drawing noble expression from the players (harps stately in their ‘once upon a time’ first entry), with deeds of valour amply implied in the central allegro and past glories poignantly evoked in the elegiac close. It was ‘Šárka’, the tale of infidelity and revenge, that brought the evening’s most arresting moments. From its opening flourish, via a rambunctious march (with silky clarinet), its pilsner-fuelled bacchanal and closing slaughter, the orchestra revelled in every graphic moment with trombones thirsty for blood at the end.

The start of ‘From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields’ was no less powerful than ‘Šárka’ had been dramatic, van Steen coaxing crisp string articulation in the fugue and later fashioning an exhilarating polka to summon a village band having a knees-up. There was much to enjoy in ‘Blaník’ where the defeated Czech heroes lie asleep until their country needs them. Its triumphal march, through to the return of ‘Vyšehrad’’s mighty theme (not forgetting some delightful shepherd exchanges from woodwind and horn) were given an involving traversal, the players’ love and respect for the music self-evident.

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