BBC Singers and the BBC Symphony Orchestra play Smetana

'They've never sounded as beautiful as on this CD'

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Smetana
LABELS: Onyx
ALBUM TITLE: Smetana
WORKS: Dalibor
PERFORMER: Ivan Kusnjer, Richard Samek, Ales Voráček, Dana Burešová, Alžbeta Polácková, Jan Stava, Svatopluk Sem; BBC Singers; BBC Symphony Orchestra/Jirî Bėlohlávek
CATALOGUE NO: ONYX 4158

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Dalibor has wonderful music and an odd but interesting plot. The main love-interest, musician Zdenek, is a mere spirit hovering over rebel Dalibor who takes revenge for his murder; and if Milada, the sister of the man Dalibor killed, takes Zdenek’s place, it’s only because she’s disguised to resemble her brother when she visits the protagonist in prison. Great gay opera, then? Unquestionably, not least because the many ravishing passages in which Dalibor evokes his Zdenek are marked ‘amoroso’. They’ve never sounded as beautiful as this on CD.

Jiπí B∑lohlávek creates a proper sense of the numinous from the BBC Symphony Orchestra, above all in the solos of leader, harpist and two horns, exquisitely haloed. B∑lohlávek leaves us in no doubt that Smetana’s subtle score, with its fascinating transitions between scenes, is a masterpiece. It’s full of unusual harmonies and interesting, proto-Tchaikovskyan wind choruses.

Given the early speech-melodies setting the consonant-laden Czech language, the cast of native speakers is essential. Tenor Richard Samek doesn’t fill every phrase with the intensity and meaning of the classic Dalibor, Beno Blachut, but his tone is pleasingly feminine and, in the great prison duet, contrasts well with the fuller top notes of Dana Burasova’s Milada. Strong voices abound, notably baritone Svatopluk Sem as Budivoj, chief of the king’s castle guard. The Barbican acoustic has never sounded better than under BBC producer Ann McKay’s team. What a shame, though, that the Onyx presentation is so meagre, not least in lacking a libretto – essential in an opera that very few listeners outside the Czech republic will know.

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David Nice