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Czech Might

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
09/30/2010 -  
Bedrich Smetana: Má Vlast (My Motherland): 1. Vysehrad (The High Castle) – 2. Vltava (The Moldau) – 3. Sárka (Sarka: The Amazon Warrior) – 4. Z ceských luhu a háju (From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields) – 5. Tábor (The City, the centre of Hussite Christendom) – 6. Blaník (Blanik Mountain)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Nikolaus Harnoncourt (Conductor)

The rarity of hearing the all six symphonic poems from Smetana’s My Fatherland was not lost on the Carnegie Hall audience. Not only was the hall filled, but devotees listened in rapt attention, without a single errant clapper between the movements.

The last performance of the full Má Vlast, according to ConcertoNet, was in 2001, when the Philadelphia Orchestra performed it under Wolfgang Sawallisch. This time, the conductor was hardly inferior: the Vienna Philharmonic, adjacent to the Czech Republic with its own Czech players, was perhaps even more fitting to play. And while Nikolaus Harnoncourt had recorded the piece many years ago, the work was so rare, according to one player from the Vienna Phil, that not even they had performed it completely during rehearsals.

I have a difficult time classifying Má Vlast. The six…er, movements can be played separately, though only The Moldau has its place in the American repertory. But all six pieces are inextricably mixed together. The opening theme from “The High Castle” is repeated in the second piece and the sixth. The Moldau theme is in the last work, which also has a commonality with the preceding poem in the Hussite Hymn, the Czech Republic national song.

Five of the poems are scenic postcards, extolling a high castle, a river, a religious town, a mountain and vernal scenery. The third is totally out of place. Sárka ends with a pack of soldiers getting drunk, dancing around, going to sleep and being slaughtered by a pack of Amazon women.

Listening to all six played together (with an unfortunate intermission), one appreciates how Bedrich Smetana penned his tone-pictures not with Gallic delicacy but the full-blooded Central European pride. The opening could have been written by Weber or Wagner. The horn calls and rustic dances, had the flavor of rustic Mahler.

Most important, every single movement surges with vitality, excitement, glorious tunes, and the spirit of the mid-19th Century new nationalism.

Nikolaus Harnoncourt couldn’t avoid the bravura melodies, but he added much which was unusual. The opening harp-duo solos are usually played straight, heroically. He gave extra retards to the arpeggios, he gave it a kind of nostalgia, even sadness before the horn calls. That, in fact, set the tone for the whole movement, with the great castle rising oh so slowly from the orchestral forces.

The Moldau also was slow and stately, as we know it. But the violence of Sárka was almost that of a Sarka du Printemps. Since we know that 500 soldiers would soon be slaughtered, the bumptious drunken dancing was a little ghoulish, but Mr. Harnoncourt let the humor come out.

The second half started with the most astonishing playing by the Vienna Phil from a section which usually is ignored. The half-fugue in the middle of From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields was performed with gorgeous lightness by the strings. Má Vlast is such an ensemble work (only the horns get their solos) that to hear this section was a heavenly interlude in the very dramatic performance.

The final two poems are usually intertwined, but Mr. Harnoncourt gave great contrast, and the advent of the themes from the earlier movements had a surging glory which one rarely finds in any composer.

In a way, I am happy that Má Vlast is so rarely played in full. Were it more common, we might hear the foursquare nature of the melodies or tire of those calls of brass. During these intervals of a decade or so, though we can long for the music, remembering a few phrases, and experience the surprise of its unity of music and theme.

Mr. Harnoncourt’s original program was a Mahler symphony, and he would have probably triumphed. But we have a lot of Mahler next month. His performance of Má Vlast was not only rare in itself, but especially rare in his execution.

Harry Rolnick



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