Smetana – Má Vlast
Nikolaus Harnoncourt, conductor
Má Vlast: Composition
Dedicated to the city of Prague, the cycle of Má Vlast (Hy Homeland, 1872-1877) was inspired by a non-Czech form (the symphonic poem, initiated by Liszt), but it is definitely Czech in its sound and subjects, as it is inspired by the country’s history, myths and geography.
The first collective performance of Má Vlast took place in Prague on 5 November 1882 and confirmed Smetana’s leading role among Czech composers. He was well aware of his status, as a letter to a German arranger reveals. In fact, after declining the request to compose a comic addition for his opera The Two Widows, Smetana stated: «I must seek to keep that honourable and glorious position which my compositions have prepared for me among my people and in my country. According to my merits and according to my efforts I am a Czech composer and the creator of the Czech style in the branches of dramatic and symphonic music – exclusively Czech».
Má Vlast: the Performance
Harnoncourt’s recording of Má Vlast is one of the most perfect and detailed renditions of Smetana’s masterpiece. Differently from other performances, the present one offers an inestimable treasure of ideas which has its core in the fluid, spontaneous lyricism and grace that surround each the six symphonic poems.
As always with Harnoncourt, tempi are slowed down, but this is not merely a sterile expedient or, even worse, an attempt to emphasize a haughty and rhetorically empty magnificence that does not suit Smetana’s inspired work. On the contrary, slow tempi are the right choice to give prominence to the most delicate lyricism of the six symphonic poems, which have in Harnoncourt’s reading one of their most beautiful, evocative renditions.
Vyšehrad and Vltava
In Vyšehrad and in Vltava this state of things is perfectly clear. Their deeply atmospheric passages are free from any unnecessary and detrimental hurry and flourish splendidly.
In detail, Vyšehrad, referring to the rocky outcrop above Prague and the seat of the Bohemian princes, reveals its opulence both in the wide range of warm orchestral colours and in the magnificent ebb and flow of music that Harnoncourt handles so well.
For its part, the Vltava (the Moldau), referring the river that runs through Prague, is now sparkling, now melancholic, but always noble.
Šárka and Z českých luhů a hájů
If the first two symphonic poems are peaceful in their character, the third alternate violent outbursts to lyrical passages. Šárka, in fact, tells the legendary story of a revengeful Czech warrior princess who was unable to accept the infidelity of her lover. The orchestral colours are flaming and the portray of the princess’s cruelty is particularly effective.
Z českých luhů a hájů (From Bohemia fields and groves) opens in a mesmeric way. This symphonic poem is remarkable for the suggestive and grandiose traits – later, for its vivacity and resplendence – with which Harnoncourt characterizes it. Moreover, it is precious for the natural echoes that the Wiener Philharmoniker describes so well through the refined sound of their instruments.
Tábor and Tábor
Tábor, the stronghold of the Hussite Rebellion, is a gloomy and arcane piece in Harnoncourt’s reading. The orchestra displays here a palette of dark colours that are particularly effective – and the brasses are exceptional in this regard. Also, the lack of haste in Harnoncourt’s conduction is extremely valuable for the perfect representation of every detail and for the vividness of the picture.
The last symphonic poem is entitled Blaník after the mountain where defeated Czech warriors retreated till their fatherland will need them again. This is a piece where the rhythms are crisp and the sound is pure. The orchestra echoes brilliantly Harnoncourt’s inner vision with exquisitely lustrous and transparent colours.