WORKS: Má vlast
PERFORMER: Vienna PO/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
CATALOGUE NO: 0927-44890-2
The resonances of Smetana’s orchestral masterpiece, My Country, with its depiction of Bohemia’s landscape, history and mythology, are so pungent that performances tend to divide on national lines: many non-Czech readings tread the path of virtue, but only the Czechs seem to achieve transcendental excellence, notably Talich in 1954 and Kubelík in 1990, both with the Czech Philharmonic.
Hard on the heels of his electrifying account of Dvorák’s Slavonic Dances (reviewed last month), Harnoncourt’s reading of My Country is something of a disappointment. His performance is an object lesson in revealing inner instrumental lines, not always easy given Smetana’s occasionally heavy orchestration, but from the start of ‘Vyšehrad’ Harnoncourt goes for an exaggeratedly epic reading. ‘Vltava’ is also on the slow side: the evocation of the village wedding and sporting water nymphs are charming, but the course of the river seems a little on the sluggish side. ‘Šárka’ begins well but the advance of the warriors, their drunken polka and brutal slaughter, do not generate much impetus. In ‘From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields’ Harnoncourt captures the sentiment, but not the heady exaltation of being amid nature. While ‘Tábor’ and ‘Blaník’ do not exactly falter under the weight of their tempi, they make ponderous listening for much of their length and even the pastoral idyll at the heart of ‘Blaník’ does not really lift the spirits. These performances have virtues, and should be standard listening for anyone wanting to hear the full detail of Smetana’s score, but those who want their heart-strings pulled will have to return to Talich and Kubelík. Jan Smaczny