ALBUM TITLE: Smetana
WORKS: Symphonic Poems: Walllenstein’s Camp; Richard III; Hakon Jarl; The Fisherman; Peasant Girl; Prague Carnival; Fanfare; Festive Overture etcMá vlast; Richard III; Wallenstein’s Camp; Hakon Jarl; Triumph Symphony; March for Shakespeare Festival etc
PERFORMER: Prague Radio SO/Vladimír Válek
CATALOGUE NO: SU 3916-2
Bed?ich Smetana’s symphonic poems tend to surface mostly as fillers for Má vlast, understandably enough, or in general Czech collections – almost never together. Yet they have their own claims to attention, as does his relatively slender orchestral output generally. These two collections, one native (conducted by Vladimír Válek), one international (conducted by Gianandrea Noseda), present us with differing programmes and distinctly different interpretations.
Noseda, on Chandos, offers a single disc centering on the three large-scale symphonic poems, plus an interesting selection of smaller pieces less well-known – often undeservedly so. If the youthful Festive Overture outstays its frolicsome welcome, Der Fischer, after Goethe, is exceptionally beautiful, rippling aquatic seduction in the manner of Mendelssohn and Wagner, and very well played here. So is Wallenstein’s Camp, based on Schiller’s drama about Cromwell’s German contemporary who both defended and tried to usurp the Holy Roman Empire in the Thirty Years War. It consists of vividly illustrative episodes – soldiers carousing, reproving monks (to unison trombones), swaggering battle march and so on – and Noseda and his BBC forces infuse these with tremendous panache and colour.
Richard III, less literal and more of a character study, also comes over well; but the darker, brooding Hakon Jarl sounds rather too brash. The impressionistic whirl of Prague Carnival suits Noseda much better, likewise the pageant-based Shakespeare Festival March.
Beyond the poems, this is the only work common to Válek’s three-disc set; this couples the Ceremonial Prelude, Triumph Symphony, some cheerful polkas and a full-disc Má vlast – which it probably shouldn’t have. Recorded live, it’s a very uneven performance, especially in the opening Vy?ehrad which comes across as turgid and shapeless, with some pretty tentative playing. Vltava and ?árka greatly improve, but the performance falters again throughout, no match for benchmark names like Rafael Kubelík and Charles Mackerras. The studio-made tone-poems are much better, but in Richard and Wallenstein Válek doesn’t rival Noseda’s vigour. In Hakon, however – about a pagan Viking prince deposed by his Christian rival and murdered by his last follower – he catches the brooding Nordic gloom more successfully. The early Triumph Symphony, with its quotes from what was then the Austrian National Anthem, is fairly dispensable. For the Shakespeare Festival March, though, the honours are about even.
Occasionally Noseda’s determinedly brilliant style and bright recording make Smetana’s joyous fanfares and marches a shade wearing; Válek’s milder East European horn tones can sound more atmospheric. But with Válek’s wasted Má vlast and less interesting couplings, Noseda’s single disc is the better buy. Michael Scott Rohan