*** 1/2 SMETANA: “Ma Vlast” Czech Philharmonic Orchestra; Charles Mackerras, conductor, Supraphon


Smetana’s epic cycle of six symphonic poems about Czech legend, life and landscape, “Ma Vlast” (My Country) pretty much defined Czech nationalist music at the end of the 19th century. And despite the pops programming popularity of the second movement, “The Moldau,” it is music that belongs uniquely to the Czechs. There have been few recordings by foreign conductors of the complete work and even fewer of interest (James Levine’s with the Vienna Philharmonic in the ‘80s is the best--beautiful and robust if too lush). But Mackerras--born in Australia to American parents, long identified with the London music scene and an early pioneer in performing 17th and 18th century music in historically informed ways--somewhere along the line picked up a Czech soul. He is principal guest conductor of the Czech Philharmonic, and he here leads a genuinely outstanding performance of “Ma Vlast”--the recording is of a live concert in 1999. He may not quite equal the intensity of Vaclav Talich, the great warmth of Rafael Kubelik or the majesty of Karel Ancerl, but he comes remarkably close to all those ideals. And he adds a clarity, a gripping symphonic purpose and wonderful vibrancy all his own in a 75-minute work that is sometimes dismissed by non-Czechs as music more of color and character than substance. On this very impressive disc, with the orchestra playing its collective heart out, it can be all things to all people.


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