SMETANA's epic symphonic cycle "Ma vlast" (My Country") in its entirety is far less known and less frequently performed or recorded than the second of its six parts, which the Czechs know as "Vltava" and we generally call "The Moldau." Performances are becoming a bit less rare, however, and no fewer than nine complete recordings are listed in Schwann. Yet not one of these offers a performance by the great Czech Philharmonic, which brings a very special authority and commitment to this music (which it performs at least once a year to open the Prague Spring Festival) and which has recorded it several times under various conductors. (Its two Supraphon stereo versions, under Karel Ancerl and Vaclay Neumalknn, respectively, are both available here as imports, but not listed in Schwann.)
The Ancerl/Czech Philharmonic version of "Ma vlast," an especially compelling one, was available here for a time on CBS' Crossroads label, and then on Vanguard. Now that Quintessence has brought back so many valuable Supraphon items, I had hoped this one would turn up again. But instead Quintessence has chosen to bring us an earlier Czech Philharmonic recording of unquestionable historical value: the perhaps definitive performance conducted by the beloved and legendary Vaclav Talich (PMC-7168, cassette P4C-7168).
This performance, recorded in 1955, was available here as early as 1959 on the Parliament label, spread over four sides and already sounding a little less than contemporary. Quintessence has managed to put the whole thing on a single disc -- side one plays 34 minutes, side two nearly 39 -- and it sounds a good deal handsomer than the earlier four-sided edition. The sound is simply better than anyone might have imagined from the Parliament pressings. The surfaces are very quiet, and there are extremely thoroughgoing notes by R. D. Darrell.
This may not be a substitute for a really up-to-date, wide-open stereo version (among which I like the aforementioned Ancerl and, more and more, the excellent one on Turnabout by the late Walter Susskind and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra), but its surprisingly good sound makes it a good Louis Symphony Orchestra), but its surprisingly good sound makes it a good deal more than a mere historical document. And its low price and convenient format make it especially appealing as a second version. An outstanding and valuable example of musical conservation at its best.
Among other noteworthy reissues in the same batch from Quintessence is another Supraphon item, this one not music by Smetana, but the Smetana Quartet's 1965 recording of Beethoven's Op. 130 Quartet in B-flat, with the "Grosse Fuge" in place of the shorter finale Beethoven substituted for it (PMC-7176, cassette P4C-7176). This group is working its way through the Beethoven quartets again now in digital recordings for Denon, but it may be a while before Op. 130 is reached in that series, and of course it will be much more costly than this version, which is absolutely first-rate by any standards. The sound is nice and mellow, but less crisp and well-defined than in this material's earlier domestic release on Crossroads. But no matter. No matter, either, how many recordings one may have of Op. 130: This is one few chamber-music aficionados will want to forego.
A more striking restorative job, almost as remarkable as the one on the Talich "Ma vlast," has been done with Kiril Kondrashin's recording of Rachmaninoff's choral symphony "The Bells" (PMC-7173, cassette P4C-7173). Since Angel withdrew this recording from it Melodiya series some time ago and RCA retired its Ormandy version (sung in English)a, Andre Previn has had the field to himself. His version (Angel S-37169) is very attractive, but not really a match for the exceptional fervor and conviction shown by Kondrashin, his fine soloists (soprano Elizaveta Shumsky, tenor Mikhail Dovenman, baritone Alexei Bolshakov), the RSFSR Russian Chorus and the Moscow Philharmonic. The new transfer is conspicuously richer and better-balanced than the old Melodiya/Angel edition. c