SMETANA: Richard III. Wallenstein’s Camp. Hakon Jarl. Festive Symphony: III. Scherzo / Slovak Philharmonic Orch.; Leoš Svárovsky, cond / Naxos 8.573597
For me, personally, Bedřich Smetana was a good but uneven composer. I love Ma Vlast, his string quartets and parts (but not all of) The Bartered Bride, but too many of his other music—like the parts of Bartered Bride that I dislike—are pretty but uninteresting to me, in one ear and out the other.
This is not entirely true of these elegant yet powerful tone poems. Yes, they are harmonically unadventurous, lacking the piquant interest of much of Dvořák’s output (or Martinů’s), but within their own limitations they are rhythmically interesting and have a good structure, not unlike the tone poems that make up Ma Vlast. Leoš Svárovsky, a conductor previously unknown to me, does an excellent job with them, although his penchant for slightly dragging out the length of notes to create a good legato sometimes gets in the way of the raw excitement (and to my ears, more Czech in accent) that Theodor Kuchar conjured up on his Brilliant Classics set of several years ago. Svárovsky’s softer approach is matched on this release by a warmer but less detailed sound profile, which for me dulls some of the more dramatic moments.
But this is not meant to demean Svárovsky. He is evidently a fine conductor who works hard to shape and pace the music his own way, and for those who like a more elegant line, he is clearly a good choice.
And truthfully, aside from Ma Vlast, these are the best of Smetana’s orchestral pieces (though you might also want to toss the Festive Overture in there as well). For whatever reason, his musical imagination was at its best here, as even a cursory listen will reveal.
I have described the differences in music approach between Svárovsky and Kuchar. The choice is yours!
—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley
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