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Brian Wilson Download Roundup
MusicWeb International, July 2011

Download of the Month

[‘It’s hard not to recommend this issue, and for the inveterate collector of Má Vlast discs, this album will be a special delight’.—see full review by Brian Reinhart]

Smetana’s patriotic hymn to home is a glorious work, so it’s always a pleasure to hear it in toto rather than just the ubiquitous ‘Vltava’. I’ve had my eye on this BIS release for a while, as the label is well known for showcasing the talents of out-of-the-way orchestras; look how they’ve single-handedly raised the profiles of the São Paulo and Singapore bands, both of which have produced a slew of fine recordings. The Malaysians made a terrific impact with their BIS box of Rimsky-Korsakov under Kees Bakels (BIS-CD-1667/8), so I had high hopes for this Má Vlast, conducted by music director Claus Peter Flor. My review refers to the 24-bit download.

This work has been lucky on record, with fine, idiomatic versions from Rafael Kubelik at the Prague Spring Festival (Supraphon 11 1208-2), Antoni Wit’s account on Naxos 8.550931 and, a firm favourite of mine, Libor Pešek and the RLPO on Virgin Classics 61223*. All are engaging, but few start as beautifully as this newcomer, the harp figures in ‘Vyšehrad’ simply ravishing. The orchestra are as easeful and illuminating as their European counterparts, every facet of ‘Vltava’ essayed in minute, ear-pricking detail as it grows from gurgling stream to raging torrent. The recording needs to be cranked up a bit before it snaps into focus, those pounding perorations setting new standards for this old warhorse.

And believe me, this performance just gets better and better; granted, rhythms in the epic ‘Šárka’ could be a bit more pliant, but Flor and his band are undeniably thrilling in the huge tuttis. Dynamics are extremely wide without being splashy or self-consciously hi-fi; the sound is also remarkably transparent, with some delectable woodwind and string playing both here and in those idyllic woods and fields. Indeed, this is a uniquely revealing account of Má Vlast, Flor’s many felicities and insights making the piece seem utterly fresh. And what an breathtaking close to ‘Šárka’, the orchestra as incisive as one could wish for.

Tábor, with its quotation from the Hussite hymn ‘Ye Who are Warriors of God’, is especially atmospheric, the tuttis expanding without hint of stress or strain; as for the formidable battery of brass, cymbals and timps deployed here, they’re presented with a rare, frisson-inducing immediacy that’s simply awesome. Has this music ever sounded so implacable, so forbidding? And then there’s the truly monumental, hewn-granite quality to this rendition of Blaník that puts its illustrious rivals to shame, the more lyrical episodes as beguiling as I’ve ever heard. Any concerns that this Má Vlast might lack weight or momentum have long since evaporated, Flor goading his players to a scorching—but not overheated—finale.

Goodness, what a fabulous performance, and how well recorded. BIS have been pilloried on some of the more toxic internet forums for recording their SACDs at 44.1kHz, but this new release should help to silence those harpies and nay-sayers. I must confess I’ve had cause to grumble about some recent BIS recordings, but after this cracking Má Vlast all is forgiven. Indeed, this version goes right to the top of an already teetering pile. Buy it!

Dan Morgan

[BIS on Download of the Month twice running—and it’s no fix. Like Dan, I’ve lived with and enjoyed several recordings over the years, including Kubelík’s several versions, Sargent (an unlikely contestant, but his excellent budget-price reissue on EMI was my first CD version…I thought at first, and again at the opening of Vltava, that this new recording was slow to get off the mark, but I soon came to share Dan’s enthusiasm. Most conductors plunge straight into Vltava, forgetting the direction non agitato. As Dan has commented on the 24-bit flac, I tried the CD-quality 16-bit and found it to be excellent.

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