Smetana: Ma Vlast / Flor, Malaysian Philharmonic

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SMETANA Má Vlast Claus Peter Flor, cond; Malaysian PO BIS 1805 (SACD: 76: 00)

There is something about Bed?ich Smetana’s Má Vlast that defies interpretation by anyone other than a Czech conductor. You have undoubtedly heard the names: Václav Talich, Karel An?erl, Václav Neumann, and most prominently in this case, Rafael Kubelík. His 1952 mono Mercury Olympian LP recorded with a single Telefunken microphone was an interpretive and sonic landmark, and its sound still holds up well today except for an inevitable lack of stereo spatial information. In fact, over the last 50 years, there has never been a better recorded performance of Má Vlast , even by Kubelik himself in several newer versions on different labels. His hugely anticipated and much-hyped remake with the Boston Symphony Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon) was especially disappointing sonically and interpretively.There have been numerous other significant recordings of Má Vlast , primarily by Czech conductors released by Supraphon, that have had consistently mediocre sound. Má Vlast doesn’t work well with Supraphon’s typical dry and harmonically threadbare sound. It is great to see performances by non-Czech conductors, but recent high-profile releases by Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO Live SACD) and Nikolaus Harnoncourt with the Vienna Philharmonic (RCA) have good sound but the interpretations are somewhat problematic. With this background, you have to wonder about the competitiveness of Claus Peter Flor conducting the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra. The orchestra has already made some good-sounding and critically acclaimed Bis recordings of Rimsky-Korsakov’s music, but it is the stunning SACD of Josef Suk’s “Asrael” Symphony, also conducted by Flor, that made me eager to hear this Má Vlast.

Comparing the timings of Kubelík and Flor is encouraging and instructive. There is only a 20-second difference in a work that is more than 76 minutes long. I can’t imagine a case that better illustrates the uselessness of timings to predict a conductor’s interpretive approach. Flor takes a hard-driving, propusive, dry-eyed, and at least ostensibly fast approach to Má Vlast . He also has no clue about the emotional content of this music that is so striking in interpretations by Kubelík and other Czech conductors. You can usually tell how Má Vlast is going to evolve from the opening of “Vy?ehrad.” Flor’s short, clipped, opening harp phrases and lean orchestral textures emphasize forward motion and play down any sense of grandeur. The end of “?árka” is almost hysterical, and is immediately followed by the initial chords of “From Bohemia’s Meadows and Forests,” which hit like a bulldozer. Flor does not shy away from pounding out those repetitive triplets in “Tábor,” and the timpanist is predictably aggressive in “Tábor” and “Blaník.” It is all very exciting where underplaying the bombast would induce boredom, as it does with Harnoncourt. On the other hand, Flor’s central nocturne in “Vltava” is gorgeous and atmospheric, and he also handles the tricky rhythms in the second half of “From Bohemia’s Meadows and Forests” better than other virtuosic internationalized interpretors like Davis and Harnoncourt. Flor’s finale comes closest to but does not match Kubelík in cumulative impact as they both broaden their tempo for the final statement of the ubiquitous Hussite hymn and the principal theme.

Kubelík’s (Mercury) remains unchallenged as a performance, but it is a mono recording and the CD will be difficult to find. In modern stereo sound, this recording ranks with the best except in terms of orchestral execution where I prefer Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra. The Vienna Philharmonic is on autopilot in Harnoncourt’s soporific version, but is much better with James Levine (Deutsche Grammophon). For a more modern stereo version by Kubelík, go with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (Orfeo).

FANFARE: Arthur Lintgen


Claus Peter Flor directs a tremendously exciting performance of Má Vlast, one that compares favorably to any in the catalog. He takes great pains to characterize each piece, and each section, to the fullest extent possible. In The Moldau you won't find a more vivid contrast between the scenes of the hunt, the peasant dance, the nocturne (exquisite soft brass), and the rapids (ferocious!) anywhere. The violent conclusion of Sárka is absolutely thrilling, the opening of From Bohemia's Woods and Fields terrifying. While not entirely disguising the episodic nature of Tábor (probably an impossible task), Flor keeps the last two tone poems moving forward purposefully to the work's heroic closing bars. It's a great interpretation, one that surely deserves to be documented and enjoyed by collectors.

Technically, the playing of the Malaysian Philharmonic is good, but not perfect. The trumpets at the climax of The Moldau don't quite match timbres as they should (a common problem). Toward the end of Tábor, Flor pushes the triple-forte galloping rhythm in the strings so hard that the result sounds more like Mahler's "struck with the bow" effect. The wild string triplets in Blaník are exciting, but not always ideally together, and there is a cymbal crash missing around measure 214. Some of the climaxes also suffer from an over-enthusiastic timpanist, and as a percussionist I don't make that accusation lightly. Still, Flor's own concept is so powerful, and the orchestral response so committed, that this vivid SACD production deserves very serious consideration.

--David Hurwitz,

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: BIS-SACD-1805

  • UPC: 7318599918051

  • Label: BIS

  • Composer: Bedrich Smetana

  • Conductor: Claus Peter Flor

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra