Jac van Steen and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra give a thrilling account of Smetana’s Má vlast

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Smetana: Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra / Jac van Steen (conductor). Portsmouth Guildhall, 25.1.2024. (CK)

Jac van Steen conducts the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra

Smetana – Má vlast

What a joy to be listening to the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra again, more than sixty years after I first did so (in Weston-Super-Mare, under Charles Groves and Constantin Silvestri). And an extra joy to hear the whole of Smetana’s set of six symphonic poems. Performances of the second, Vltava, are common enough; but though the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra brought the whole set to the BBC Proms a few years ago, they are not exactly staple fare among British orchestras. The only sure way to encounter them is by going to Prague in May, where they open the Spring Festival every year.

I imagine that the magical, once-upon-a-time harp sounds that usher us into Vyšehrad, the opening symphonic poem, must fall on Czech ears rather as the hushed introduction to On the Beautiful Blue Danube does on Austrian ones at Vienna’s New Year’s Day Concert. It is a marvellous opening, setting the tone for the whole piece – stately, ceremonious, expressive of dignity and national pride, tinged with a sense that these are a matter of memory only; long gone. There was fine, expressive string playing, solemn harps and horns; the orchestral sound was thrilling at the music’s zenith, and most moving at the end as the vision fades.

Vltava wound its way through its picturesque landscapes as beguilingly as ever: I particularly enjoyed the vividly characterised village polka and the lovely, veiled quality of the strings as the moonlight plays on the water and the nymphs dance. The St John’s Rapids were suitably alarming, with the piccolo shrieking above the hubbub. Šárka followed, the shortest of the six, and perhaps the one most reminiscent of a Liszt tone poem. The orchestra relished its tight narrative of love, betrayal and death: an affecting clarinet and sighing cellos portrayed Šárka’s (pretended) feelings, and perhaps those of her lovestruck victim. After the brief but heady love scene and the ensuing celebration, low bassoons suggested the snoring of the partied-out warriors – a nice moment. The concluding slaughter was vividly enacted by splendidly strident trombones as the music seemed almost to spin out of control. It was probably wise to insert an interval at this point, so that we – and perhaps the players – could recover.

The first classical music I was ever given was a 10-inch LP with Vltava on one side and From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields on the other. I have always loved this piece. Instead of presenting us with a picture-postcard depiction of natural beauty, the opening thrusts us into the open air, where a strong wind is blowing through the trees: we are swept up in an almost Tapiola-like turbulence. It was magnificently played here. Oboes and bassoons introduced a graceful tune, tiptoeing between a chorale and a folk dance; high, spectral violins led a fugal passage for the strings; and so we reached the wonderful, suave melody that stands for Nature itself (which ought to be as well-known as the Vltava tune). It seemed to me that the orchestral playing reached the heights here, right through to the jubilant, stamping polka finale.

And so to Tábor and Blaník, the linked movements that end Smetana’s design with a meditation on the heroism and tragedy of his country’s Hussite past. Tension was superbly maintained from the ominous opening of Tábor, with forceful timpani and brass: their stark motif – the first four notes of the Hussite chorale – seems to look forward to Janáček’s Overture Žárlivost (Jealousy), and perhaps Káťa Kabanová (Janáček came up with his own take on the legend 40 years later in The Ballad of Blaník). The playing was vivid and gripping, the chorale itself delivered with enormous conviction, and the cellos and double basses digging in powerfully to the close. Plenty of thrilling playing in Blaník too, though the highlight – one of the highlights of the whole evening – was the pastoral duet for oboe and echoing horn, joined by other woodwind voices to weave a soft tapestry of sound on the hillside above the sleeping warriors.

Vltava will always be welcome in our concert halls on its own: but so should the whole set, especially in performances such as this, where the excellent Jac van Steen was able to maintain a sense of larger movement while ensuring that the countless details of Smetana’s music were heard with maximum clarity. The last, lesser-known symphonic poems here became a true culmination; the ending was stirring and uplifting because it bore not only its own weight but the weight of everything that had gone before. Smetana’s triumph, of course; but van Steen’s too, and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra’s. I wonder if I will ever have the opportunity to hear how other performances measure up: meanwhile I am very grateful to have heard this one.

Chris Kettle

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