Music Smetana: Ma Vlast City of London Festival

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The Independent Culture
Smetana's majestic cycle of tone-poems, Ma Vlast, has become the latest romantic masterwork to receive authentic treatment: it opened the City of London Festival on Tuesday evening in a performance by Roger Norrington and his London Classical Players, an orchestra specialising in the performance of 19th-century music on period instruments. Those who have heard music of this time played on the kind of instruments envisaged by its composers will already know that there can be as many revelations as in the authentic performance of 18th-century music and earlier. With gut strings and wind and brass of less tonal weight and mellower sonority, the orchestral textures balance out rather differently from what we are used to, and many an expressive point takes on a subtly altered significance.

Certainly on the present occasion there were moments of poetry that brought a fresh meaning to familiar passages, but the careful ministrations of Norrington and the orchestra's command of style were prevented from making their full impact by the very problematic acoustics of the Guildhall's Great Hall. In an opening talk to his audience, Norrington made a gracious comparison between the civic pride, nationalistic myth-making and sense of a chivalric past which were shared by both the venue and Smetana's musical intentions, but the suitability of the hall did not stretch to purely musical requirements. Many of the textures were reduced to a generalised wash of sound, and strings were virtually inaudible in the more massive tuttis.

Still, something of the composer's political intent and unique poetic vision did shine through, especially in quieter passages. The bardic opening of the cycle, with harps questioning and answering from opposite sides of the stage, to be followed by hymnic exchanges between wind and strings, made a stirring opening, while the magic trickling of the stream that will eventually become a roaring flood in "Vltava" was also arrestingly characterised. Indeed, each tone-poem possesses a section or two which the hall's resonance favoured, and the epic moment in "Sarka" when horns call through the rustling forest to summon Amazon warriors to the slaughter chilled the spine, while the moonlight scene in "Vltava" evoked a breathtaking magic.

The sheer rhythmic panache of Smetana's structures often failed to tell, however. The hall smoothed over far too many rhythmic edges and there was little the performers could do about it. One looks forward to hearing in less resonant surroundings an interpretation that had been honed at the Prague Spring Festival as well as elsewhere on the orchestra's recent European tour. Norrington and his players clearly have much more to tell us about this marvellous work.