Friday, February 03, 2006

Marvellous Má Vlast - Czech it out

The last scene of Czech director Jan Sverak's Oscar winning film Kolya is set in Prague in 1990 following the overthrow of Communism in the 1989 'Velvet Revolution'. As the film ends the fictitious cellist who is the central character once again plays in the Czech Philharmonic from which he was banned under the communist regime.

In Kolya documentary film is intercut with studio scenes. The newsreel footage comes from Rafael Kubelik's famous performance of Smetana's Má Vlast at the Prague Spring Festival in 1990. Kubelik had fled from Czechslovakia when Communism came in 1948, and only returned in 1990 after democracy was re-established.

Má Vlast is one of the best known, and best loved, examples of nationalism in music. I came to know the six tone poems through Kubelik's 1971 recording with the Boston Symphony for Deutsche Grammophon which I have on LP and still treasure, although it must be said the sound quality from Symphony Hall, Boston is strangely recessed. Kubelik recorded Smetana's masterpiece four times while in exile, starting with a stunning mono recording for Mercury with the Chicago Symphony. His fifth and valedictory recording was made at that legendary 1990 Prague Spring Festival concert in 1990 for Supraphon, and is an essential testament to the triumph of art over the powers of darkness.

Kubelik performs Má Vlast with total authority, and I have never felt the need to replace my 1971 Boston Symphony vinyl set - until Sir Colin Davis' new LSO Live recording was released this month. Má Vlast needs to be performed with commitment and humanity, without it some of the orchestral writing can sound like film music. I know of no living conductor who brings more commitment and humanity to his music than the 79 year old Sir Colin. His (and the LSO's) new recording of Má Vlast is a triumph. This is passionate music making, but Sir Colin always keeps a spring in the music that reminds us that the polkas of that most wonderful of operas, The Bartered Bride, is never far away. The London Symphony Orchestra play their hearts out, and the sound quality from the Barbican concert hall is demonstration quality.

I cannot recommend the new LSO Live Má Vlast highly enough. It will not replace my treasured Kubelik vinyl recording, but it adds a complementary performance from another great musicians and man of his own convictions.

Only one quibble, and regular readers will know what it is. A legendary conductor, world-class orchestra, stunning performance and sound in a 2005 state of the art recording. Does it really have to be sold for £5 ($9 US)? Personally I would have been perfectly happy to have paid twice that for it.

If you enjoyed this post take An Overgrown Path to My first classical record
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