Smetana’s complete Má vlast returns to Cardiff

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Smetana: Welsh National Opera Orchestra / Tomáš Hanus (conductor). St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 29.1.2023. (PCG)

Tomáš Hanus conducts the Welsh National Opera Orchestra

SmetanaMá vlast

It is Smetana himself who must take much of the blame for the fact that the complete Má vlast is so rarely heard. For eight years before the 1882 Prague première of the cycle, he had already permitted and indeed encouraged performances of the individual symphonic poems that make up the work. The second poem, Vltava, taken up enthusiastically under the German title of Die Moldau, was already becoming well-established as a staple item of fare in concert halls throughout Europe. This movement has since exercised a hold on the repertory that effectively overshadows the remaining components of the cycle, with only distant competition from the fourth, From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields. The continuing popularity of Vltava, quoted in innumerable documentaries and even television advertisements, has now eclipsed the essential unity of the cycle. Outside the context of a complete performance, the casual listener will, for example, make little of the life-affirming return of the Vyšehrad theme at the end of Blaník – indeed the reference seems quite unmotivated – and will completely miss the point. But live performances of the complete cycle are a considerable rarity, at any rate outside Czechia.

The links between Welsh National Opera and Czech music go back to the 1970s. That was when Richard Armstrong and David Pountney embarked on their cycle of the complete canon of Janáček’s major operas in collaboration with Scottish Opera, and Charles Mackerras came to Cardiff to conduct the British première of Martinů’s The Greek Passion. Mackerras returned to the company not only for performances but for recordings of Janáček’s operas, including Jenůfa and, most enterprisingly, Osud. In 1983, he also gave Cardiff its last chance to hear the complete Má vlast with this same orchestra. The current Czech music director of Welsh National Opera, Tomáš Hanus, has already given us his own cycle of Janáček’s major operas (it included revivals of the Pountney productions of The Cunning Little Vixen and From the House of the Dead), culminating in this hall last year with a stunning performance of the Sinfonietta. He now crowned this achievement with a new and indeed historically significant performance of the complete Má vlast.

The orchestra was on coruscating form throughout the work’s whirlwind progress gives almost no time for anyone to relax. I was initially surprised to discover that we were to hear all six symphonic poems without an interval – surely the players needed time to recuperate and gather new strength before the final onslaught of Tábor and Blaník? – but the gains in thematic coherence were palpable, and the indefatigable strings showed no signs of tiredness. Only at one point, in the galumphing march near the beginning of Šárka (from bar 47), was there any possible concern about the otherwise scrupulously judged balances; and even at the point it may be the fault of the composer, who assigns his piano figurations to the unsupported strings against staccato wind chords that here threatened to overwhelm them. Against this momentary lapse must be set many other felicitous moments, not least the passage later in Šárka where the sf yawning snores of the second bassoon (bar 211) with its accompaniment of ppp strings represented to deliciously comic effect the snoring of the drunkenly slumbering warriors about to be slaughtered by the heroine’s female army. Another notoriously tricky passage in Vltava (bar 181) ­– where the low oboes lead into the delicacy of the scene with the water nymphs (which used on occasion to be bowdlerised for clarinets) – was again treated with model decorum. It is unusual in a review to specifically compliment the second players in a woodwind team, but credit is well deserved by Oliver Galetta (for humour) and Emily Cockbill (for decorum).

Time and again Hanus was content to collaborate with his players to achieve the desired results. During the more frenetic codas of Šárka, Tábor and Bohemia’s Woods and Fields he simply allowed the orchestra its head as it charged towards its riotous conclusion. His concern for exemplary balance was perhaps best illustrated at the very beginning of Vyšehrad. Smetana’s two harp parts (which the composer specifies in a footnote can be realised by a single player) were actually played in unison to ensure that the illustrative bardic elements were clearly audible, even when they were given a sustained wind accompaniment later in the movement. Hanus was also careful to observe the composer’s direction that the peasant dance and scene with the nymphs in Vltava should always be maintained at the same basic pulse, as directed in the score, and not separated off as individual episodes in the rondo structure.

I must not fail to mention the excellent programme furnished by the WNO, handsomely illustrated in colour with period prints of relevant landscapes. It also supplied detailed analyses of both the music and the programmatic elements. Branwen Thistlewood deserves credit both for the contents and presentation. Before the concert, Hanus gave short and pithy observations about both the music and its autobiographical impact. He also drew attention to Smetana’s anticipations of atonal music in some of his thematic inspirations, something that I must admit I had never recognised before.

I had noted the sometimes-scanty audiences who attend the symphonic concerts at St David’s Hall on Sunday afternoons, and the surprising failure of Welsh National Opera to sell concert seats to the substantial theatrical audiences who attend their seasons at the Millennium Centre down in Cardiff Bay. That was most certainly not the case here. The hall was pretty well packed, and it was clear from the cheers at the end that the listeners had thoroughly enjoyed themselves even after confinement to their seats for a work lasting longer than the average Mahler symphony. Maybe that was a response to the continuing threat by Cardiff City Council to divest themselves of responsibility for the hall. One wonders how the audience would respond to the proposals to strip out the existing comfortable (and expensive) stalls for the provision of temporary tiers of seats for classical concerts. At all events, they were thoroughly well rewarded with a performance by an orchestra which seems to be hitting the peak of form, if this and last autumn’s concert outing are to be judged. This performance well repaid my persistent problems with Sunday provision of public transport in South Wales.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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