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Prague Spring

New York
Carnegie Hall
05/01/2001 -  
Bedrich Smetana: Ma Vlast
Philadelphia Orchestra
Wolfgang Sawallisch (conductor)

Czechoslovakia, like Poland, has been the target of subjugation for centuries. From the Holy Roman Empire to the Austro-Hungarians, through the Nazis and the Soviets, the Czech people have steadfastly stood up for their own identity even as they were the obscure object of every dictator’s desire. Even musically, Prague was always a victim of Austro-Germanic hegemony, the most famous premieres there those of Mozart and Mahler, not Smetana and Dvorak. During one of the many hot-blooded periods of Czech national spirit, Bedrich Smetana composed six pieces of patriotic intensity (as inflammatory as the famous chorus from Verdi’s Nabucco) and later combined them into one prodigious essay on the nature of man’s spirit and his elemental longing to be free. Coming smack dab in the middle of the Czech Festival up the street at Lincoln Center, the Philadelphia Orchestra presented a complete performance of Ma Vlast at Carnegie Hall the very night before Sir Colin Davis was due to present sections of the same work. As a journalist, I looked forward to this head-to-head competition with relish, although the first two programs of the London Symphony indicated that they were not serious challengers to the promise of the forces of Wolfgang Sawallisch.

Maestro has opened the Prague Spring Festival twice with performances of these tone poems. Every year on May 12, the composer’s birthday, the international event begins with this fervent music, ushering in a second season of opera, symphony and chamber music. When the deaf Smetana wrote these pieces in the 1870’s, the tone poem was a relatively new invention, and the composer of Wallenstein’s Camp continued his descriptive style with a decidedly Bohemian flavor. At least two of these sections are often excerpted, but, as a totality, they have a very different cumulative feel. The work as a whole is hardly ever performed outside of the now Czech Republic (my companion actually attended the British premiere) and so this concert was a major event.

Here’s a question to separate the ethnomusicological men from the boys. What is the country of origin of the tune which forms the base of Hatikva, the national anthem of Israel? Quite surprisingly, it is Sweden, where Smetana, in his hearing days, absorbed this old folk song and transformed it into that most flowing of all music, the second part of the cycle, known as The Moldau (interestingly enough, the very usage of the Germanized word speaks volumes about the repression of the Czech identity-Smetana originally called this movement Vltava, but it has come down to us with the more standard European etymology). Sawallisch’s approach was itself highly Teutonic and emphasized the direct connection to Wagner’s Ring, written at exactly the same time. His Moldau moved like the Rhine of the legend, powerful and yet serene, mysterious and yet docile, exciting but ultimately comforting: the perfect emblem of home. The Philadelphia strings were luxuriant throughout.

But this high calorie approach sometime seemed ponderous in the first half of the program. The normally lilting passages of the fortress section were a bit too stolid, although expertly intoned. The beautiful harp solo at the very beginning, joined ultimately by the horns, immediately conjured up medieval images which cropped up again and again (cf. Bruckner Symphony # 4). Where this conductor really shone was in the more dramatic passages, the introduction to Sarka, so closely akin to the storm from Walkuere, especially thrilling. After the interval, Sawallisch’s unchanging style was more a propos, the second three poems more narrative and febrile, more concerned with a wide dramatic scope, the ending Mount Blanik a paroxysm of sonically magic fire. Extremely stirring music expertly played, by the end we were all ready to storm the battlements.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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