James Levine's viennese recording of Smetana's famed masterpiece is one of the best performances of the work around today. With clear, full-bodied digital recording and ripe, rich and opulent playing from the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, it presents a performance that is as comporable to Kubelik as any other. Despite Levine's roots in the theatre (Metropolitan Opera), he manages to grasp a clear sense of drama in the work, and while some might argue that he is mainly concerned with orchestral effect for its own sake, he certainly does not do this but presents every minute detail in this musical kaliedascopic picture.
This will be quite a discovery for those who know the music of Bedrich Smetana only through his grand and nationalistic cycle of tone-poems, Ma Vlast, even if they are yet familiar with his more painfully intimate string quartets or his folkloristic operas. For Smetana, like most composers, needed to eat; and to do so he was happy to make his own contribution towards satisfying the seemingly insatiable appetite of the bourgeois 19th-century public for piano music that they could perform at home. Music of no great difficulty but boundless charm, these miniatures are now seldom heard and even less often recorded, and this is a shame, for works such as the Op.3 Characteristic Pieces show how the pianistic extroversion of Brahms and Liszt (who was a great admirer and supporter of the young Smetana, giving him valuable introductions to publishers) could be adapted to a domestic context, and with the particular inflection of Czech and Bohemian character, derived not only from simple and song-like melodies but also irregularly stressed dance-rhythms that the young Italian pianist Roberto Plano relishes to the full on this welcome new survey.
In many ways Ma Vlast seems like a problematic work. It is full of patriotism and conductors often choose to exploit its grandeur. Such approaches bring a risk of heaviness. Nikolaus Harnoncourt managed to employ slow tempi and achieve a deeper look without a trace of ponderousness, but his feat was remarkable and difficult to emulate. (Harnoncourt takes 83 minutes compared to 73 for Smetacek, a huge difference.) So Smetacek's decision to go for abandon and delight seems wise. The Czech Phil adds volumes to the treat, with a warm, juicy tone that is almost as enjoyable in this repertoire as the Vienna Phil. In addition, Supraphon's sound is splendid, about as good as early digital gets.
Among music lovers Croatian conductor Lovro von Matačić is mostly known as a great Bruckner exegete. However he was a champion in the Eastern Europe music too. His repertoire included symphonic and opera compositions by Tchaikovsky, Janáček, Korte, Smetana etc.
A great combination of the great composers. Dvorak's 9th Symphony also known as "From the New World" and Smetana's "Moldau" from his series "My Motherland". The cover above is from the 1993 remastered edition but the rip source is the original 1985 disc.