Czech music was always what defined Jiři Bělohlávek as a conductor. In his six years with the BBC Symphony Orchestra he conducted a wide range of works, from Mozart to the present day, but it was the music of his fellow countrymen that consistently brought the best from him. Many of those performances – of Suk, Janáček and especially Martinů, as well as Smetana and Dvořák – have been released on disc, but he also recorded extensively with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, where he took over as chief conductor for a second time after leaving the BBC, and where he remained until his death last year at the age of 71.
This recording of Má Vlast, Smetana’s great cycle of nationalist tone poems, taken from performances that Bělohlávek conducted at the Prague spring festival in 2014, is the orchestra’s tribute to one of its best-loved conductors and makes a perfectly apt memorial. They had made a much earlier recording of Má Vlast together, in 1990 for Supraphon, but the new version has a much warmer, richer and more detailed sound than its predecessor. The orchestral playing on this later performance has a fraction more depth and personality too; the CPO has always been an exceptionally characterful band, and under Bělohlávek they seem to have added muscularity and incisiveness to that mix.
The approach is generously expressive, perhaps a little too generous at times; there are moments in the opening tone poem, Vyšehrad, and the third, Šarka, especially, when slightly faster tempi would have made the results even more compelling. But no one could doubt the convincing way the fifth piece, Tábor, builds towards its climax, or the way in which Bělohlávek sustains that dramatic tension into the final Blaník, which is almost seamlessly linked to its predecessor, giving the whole cycle its sense of symphonic unity. The two best-known numbers, Vltava and From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields, get wonderfully warm readings in their own right; like the whole cycle, they may be pieces that every Czech orchestra knows inside out, but there’s no hint of routine here.
Má Vlast is a work that has been well served on disc, from at least the 1950s onwards. Rafael Kubelik’s five recordings, with orchestras including the Boston Symphony and the Czech Philharmonic, are some of the finest around. Others by Colin Davis (LSO Live) and Charles Mackerras (Supraphon) have the benefit of up-to-date digital sound, while for something completely different there’s Roger Norrington’s period-instrument performance, though that may be hard to track down at the moment. But this is a version to be reckoned with too, and most of all, a very worthy tribute to a fine musician.