Bedřich Smetana: Má Vlast
Antonín Dvořák: Symphonic Poems opp.107 – 110

Media Review / Listening Diary 2014-04-17

2014-04-17 — Original posting (on Blogger)
2014-06-13 — Typo corrected (thanks to the commenter!)
2014-11-11 — Re-posting as is (WordPress)
2016-07-20 — Brushed up for better readability

Table of Contents

Bedřich Smetana (1824 – 1884): Má Vlast, JB 1:112

Smetana: Má Vlast, Harnoncourt, CD cover

Smetana: Má Vlast

Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Vienna Philharmonics

BMG Classics 82876 54331 2 (2 CDs, stereo); ℗ / © 2003
booklet: 28 pp., d/e/f

Smetana: Má Vlast, Harnoncourt, UPC-A barcode
amazon media link

The Recording

The opera “The Bartered Bride” (Prodaná nevěsta, 1866), his first string quartet in E minor “From My Life” (Z mého života, 1876), and the orchestral cycle Má Vlast, JB 1:112 (“My fatherland”, first performed in 1882) are the best-known compositions by Bedřich Smetana (1824 – 1884). The above CD set (total duration: 83’12”) is the result of a live recording in the Musikvereinssaal in Vienna (November 2001) and covers the entire cycle:

  1. Vyšehrad — 15’55”
  2. Vltava (The river Moldau) — 12’54”
  3. Šárka — 10’41”
  4. Z Českých luhů a hájů (From Bohemia’s fields and woods) — 13’52”
  5. Tábor — 14’25”
  6. Bláník — 15’27”

Vltava / The River Moldau

Among these, Vltava (which I’m going to focus on for these comments) is definitely the most popular movement. My impression is that this is often used as a virtuosic orchestral showpiece. This at least is the way in which it seems imprinted in my memory.

For sure, Harnoncourt went back to the available sources and did careful research on this cycle: in the booklet, he gives 8 pages of detailed explanation on the music and its background, including notation showing the important motifs / melodies. He obviously tries to detach himself from (false) traditions that have crept over the time since 1882. The least he apparently wants to do is, to follow the path of orchestral showpiece. Although his tempo may not be really slow (it is definitely not fast!), the pieces often feel slightly epic. The sound of the recording (& the orchestra, of course) is excellent, well-balanced / equilibrated — from the sound alone one could barely tell that it’s a live performance (though they may have combined takes from several concerts over the course of 5 days).

Tradition vs. Authentic Approach?

But here comes what one gets vs. what one expects: as stated, Harnoncourt does not try to expose virtuosity. Where traditional performances (especially in “Vltava”) tend to be fast, with light(er), “sharp” articulation up to the notorious two smashed, final chords (sometimes sharp as shots), Harnoncourt lets the orchestra use smoother articulation, closer to legato — and the final two chords in “Vltava” are (unexpectedly) slow and broad. I’m sure Harnoncourt found justification for the broad ending. The piece doesn’t need those two sharp “shots” in the end (in fact, I can’t think of a good reason for this piece ending so briskly).

However, in a way, the music is often lacking contours, clarity, transparency in this interpretation. It could well be that for the concert audience, this performance was loaded with emotion and atmosphere — but I think this hardly transpires through this recording, which sometimes makes me long for the vitality of one of the traditional interpretations (none of which I have on CD, though). Some — but definitely not all — of this may be due to the live recording: hard to tell!

Note: while the above comments primarily referred to Vltava, they also apply (mutatis mutandis) to the other movements of the cycle. Overall, this is a good & interesting interpretation — but I hesitate to recommend it as the only recording to have!?

Dvořák: Symphonic Poems opp.107, 108, 109, & 110, Harnoncourt, CD cover

Dvořák: Symphonic Poems (opp. 107 – 110)

Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

Teldec Classics 2564 60221 2 (2 CDs, stereo); ℗ / © 2003
booklet: 19 pp., e/d/f

Dvořák: Symphonic Poems opp.107, 108, 109, & 110, Harnoncourt, UPC-A barcode
amazon media link

The Composition

In 1896 – 1897 (after his return from the States), Antonín Dvořák (1841 – 1904) has written five Symphonic Poems (opp.107 – 111) . Four of these (included in this recording) are based on (rather gory) fairy tales. While the nature of these tales caused some upsetting initially, I don’t think we need to be concerned with them: even without the underlying “program”, this is very nice, fascinating music, much more accessible (to me) than Smetana’s “Ma Vlast” — and it’s an excellent performance. Here’s an overview over the contents of this set of CDs (total duration: 83’39”):

The Interpretation / The Music

Before acquiring this recording, I was not familiar with these composition: I merely bought this out of curiosity — and I must say, I really like this music! As stated, I think the interpretation is excellent: op.108 and 109 are live recordings — but one really could not tell; the sound is transparent, clear, the tempo feels “right”, with excellent articulation and performance overall. I prefer this over the Smetana recording above — though I suspect that some of this preference is due to the “lighter” texture of the music and to Dvořák’s instrumentation, which I think is superior to Smetana’s.

Conclusion: if you like Dvořák’s symphonies, you will also like these Symphonic Poems — I can only recommend this recording!

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