Music Smetana: Ma Vlast City of London Festival
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.
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