Classical Music: Ma Vlast: LPO / Berglund Royal Festival Hall, London

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The Independent Culture
Smetana's Ma vlast is among the most compelling musical statements of patriotism in the orchestral repertory. The high rock Vysehrad, the Vltava river that flows nearby, the Amazonian warrior Sarka, the verdant stretches of "Bohemia's Woods and Fields", the brave Hussites of Tabor and the Blanik Mountain where they lay in wait, all inspired the "father of Czech music" to a level of originality that matches, sometimes even upstages, the best Liszt tone-poems. Opportunities to hear the whole of Ma vlast live are few and far between, and so it was heartening to encounter Paavo Berglund's forceful performance in the context of the London Philharmonic's "Great Cities of the World" series at the Royal Festival Hall. The decision to spread the cycle over two evenings, however, meant that Smetana's ground- plan was significantly misrepresented: key thematic relationships were obscured (between, say, Tuesday's "Vysehrad" and the previous Sunday's "Vltava") and the overall effect was akin to scrambling the chapters of a novel. The situation was doubly unfortunate given the impressive unity of Berglund's interpretation. And, if a split was truly inevitable, why not give us the first three pieces on Sunday and the last three on Tuesday?

In the event, "Vltava", "Sarka" and "From Bohemia's Woods and Fields" took the first lap and "Vysehrad", "Tabor" and "Blanik" the second. "Vltava" opened to deftly turned flute phrases and a swift current, summoned a powerful quintet of "hunting" horns, a lusty peasant's wedding, a linear moonlit glade and a strong, but unhurried, statement of the St John Rapids. "Sarka" burst in with colossal energy and explosive timpani rolls, calmed for one of Smetana's most ardent melodies, perked up again for a rustic dance (where Berglund underlined important inner string voices) and, beyond a baleful clarinet solo depicting Sarka herself, flared to a ranging coda. "From Bohemia's Woods and Fields" is a whole world in itself - spacious, tuneful and incorporating an eerie, reptilian fugue. But the finest performances of the series crowned the second concert, where "Vysehrad" and "Tabor" were infused with maximum drama and "Blanik" climaxed to a festive amalgam of key themes.

Berglund's chief strength is in knowing precisely where to intensify, emphasise and trace significant counterpoint. In that last respect, he had his work cut with Martinu's neo-Baroque Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra, with its propulsive first movement, painfully ascending Adagio and equivocally joyous finale. Berglund's partners-in-dialogue were the members of the Borodin Quartet (now with a new leader and violist), rich-toned as ever despite their relatively ungrateful role. That was on Sunday, where a taut Mozart "Prague" Symphony opened the programme. Tuesday's concert included an equally rigorous "Haffner" Symphony, though the first half was dominated by a memorable account of Dvorak's Piano Quintet with Stephen Kovacevich and the gifted Keller Quartet. Kovacevich's approach traced parallels between Dvorak and Brahms and there was some especially sensitive viola playing towards the end of the "Dumka" second movement. But the highlight of the performance was a dancing Scherzo that zipped along with such infectious elan that it prompted a spontaneous burst of applause.

Robert Cowan