Jiří Bělohlávek, conductor
Czech composer Jiří Bělohlávek was principally renowned and praised for his performances of music of composers from his own country. His recordings of works by Smetana, Dvořák, Martinů, Fibich and Ostrčil are considered as gems in their discographies and won him international acclaim. He was Chief Conductor of the Czech Philharmonic between 1990 and 1992 and again between 2012 and 2017, the year of his death. The present recording of Smetana’s masterpiece Má Vlast is the first album released after his passing, but it was recorded shortly after Bělohlávek was appointed Chief Conductor for the second time, during the opening concerts of the Prague Spring Festival in 2012.
Má Vlast (Hy Homeland) is a cycle of six symphonic poems composed by Bedřich Smetana from 1872 (the first two were written immediately after he became deaf) to 1877 and dedicated to the city of Prague. Each piece was performed separately and the first collective performance of the cycle took place in Prague on 5 November 1882. Even though Má Vlast is composed in a form (the symphonic poem) pioneered by Liszt, it has a distinctly Czech sound and takes its inspiration from Czech traditions. Of the six symphonic poems, two refer to myths, two to nature and two to history, summing up Czech beliefs, culture and landscape.
The present recording of Má Vlast is particularly remarkable for its fluency, intensity and technical finish. Under Bělohlávek’s baton the cycle becomes vibrant, its music sparkling. It is easy to recognize here all the qualities for which Bělohlávek has been praised. The symphonic cycle has a unitary character, strongly inspired by magical and deeply atmospheric passages where soaring and lush melodies flow with imperturbable brilliance.
Poetry is the main feature of the entire cycle, a feature which is immediately recognizable for its simplicity and straightforwardness. However, the poems to which it belongs the most are the first two. Vyšehrad (completed in 1874) refers to the rocky outcrop above Prague, which was the seat of the Bohemian princes and the symbol of a glorious past. It has also mythic associations. In this work, the wise use of dynamics allows Bělohlávek to create a glorious depiction that the nuances of orchestral colours deepen with sympathy and warmth. The music is luminous, the sound shimmering: there are no shadows in Bělohlávek’s rendition of Vyšehrad, only light.
Vltava (the Moldau) is the river that runs through Prague. Smetana wrote that this «composition depicts the course of the Moldau, hearkening to the two sources (the “warm” and the “cold” Moldau)… It flows through woodland and between meadows where local celebrations are under way. Water-nymphs dance in the silvery moonlight; the river flows past castles, places and ruins. The water thunders and swirls over St. John’s rapids. Now wider, the river flows towards Prague, passing by the high citadel of Vyšehrad. Finally, it flows majestically into the far-off Elbe»
If the lyricism of Vyšehrad inclined to glorification, the same disposition is matched in Vltava by the characteristic suggestion of gushing water. The orchestral colours blend and intersect with one another delightfully. Bělohlávek creates in Vltava such elegiac passages that the ebb and flow of music easily conjures up the idea of running water.
The third poem, Šárka, tells the story of the legendary Czech warrior princess who, unable to accept the infidelity of her lover, swore to take revenge. It opens with an atmosphere that has nothing in common with that of the previous two works. Bělohlávek conducts this symphonic poem energetically, especially when he has to portray the cruelty of the mythical warrior princess. Her savageness is remarkably attenuated in the love scene between Šárka and Ctirad, which is described in the next section. The following banquet scene is lively and bright, and yet some sharp gestures do not make this scene completely happy. The following massacre is equally vividly and firmly conducted with rich colours, but in this case they convey the idea that something cruel and sanguinary is taking place.
After the lavish display of melodies of Šárka, Z českých luhů a hájů (From Bohemia fields and woods) begins on the sly with a dumka of which Bělohlávek stresses the sad and thoughtful character. Shortly after, however, «one hears different songs from every direction» (the quote is again by Smetana), which were considered significant from the nationalistic point of view by the composer’s contemporaries. From the musical point of view, however, Bělohlávek conducts Z českých luhů a hájů as a shimmering piece, full of joy and enthusiasm, and suitable as a moment of recreation.
Tábor was the stronghold of the Hussite Rebellion and the atmosphere could only be grave and severe. It opens with sombreness and Bělohlávek stresses its gloomy mood with remarkable insight. He characterizes the piece as nervous, even desperate, as if the orchestra is trying to reach something that continually moves forward.
Blaník is the mountain where Czech warriors retreat after their defeat and «where they sleep and wait until their fatherland will call for them again in an hour of the utmost need», as Smetana wrote. Closely connected with Tábor, Blaník begins without a pause and with energy, even though here gravity is replaced by an heroic trait that Bělohlávek rends with rhythmic incisiveness and firmness. In the remainder of Blaník, Bělohlávek returns to delicate nuances and later to shining colours that give to the symphonic poem boldness and exuberance.
The last excellent feature of this recording of Má Vlast is that the recorded sound is rich and detailed and does justice to an inspired and amazing performance of Smetana’s symphonic cycle.