Smetana’s Má vlast, the pinnacle of Czech symphonic music, is an epic display of the history, plight and folklore of the Czech people, as well as a personal victory for the composer who had reached a state of total deafness at the time of composition. The cycle of six tone poems perennially opens the Prague Spring festival, but with the exception of the justly famous Vltava, the bulk of the work is rarely heard outside the Czech Republic. Friday night concertgoers in a conspicuously underpopulated Heinz Hall were fortunate enough to hear a performance of the complete work led by Jiří Bělohlávek. Currently Principal Conductor of the Czech Philharmonic, he proved to be master of this celebration of his heritage, conducting the sprawling 72-minute canvas from memory.

Jiří Bělohlávek © Lloyd Smith
Jiří Bělohlávek
© Lloyd Smith
The opening Vyšehrad, named for the mighty castle and seat of the earliest Czech kings dating back to the 10th century, begins with an extended harp solo, invoking the bard Lumír as he recounts the castle’s rise and fall. This was executed not only with great virtuosity, but a warmth and geniality that belied the drama that was to come. The brass and winds join in due course for the first statement of the main theme representing the castle, which strategically reoccurs throughout the cycle. There were some initial slips and unevenness in the brass playing, but issues were quickly resolved as the performance gained momentum – I confess to being a bit spoiled hearing the Chicago Symphony brass every week, but this band proved a force to be reckoned with. The music grows tumultuous, depicting battle, but before any triumph the music falls quiet as the castle has been reduced to ruins.

Sinuous playing in the winds opens Vltava, depicting the springs that coalesce into the work’s namesake river, the artery and life-force of Bohemia. The famous E minor primary theme – likely derived from an Italian madrigal which was later appropriated as the national anthem of Israel – was distinguished by the richly burnished tone of the Pittsburgh strings, fronted by guest concertmaster Ellen dePasquale. The work traces the river’s journey as it passes by a lively hunt, the bacchanal of a peasant wedding, the mysterious evanescence of water nymphs, and the fury of the St John Rapids. Finally, the main theme is exultantly presented in the major and the Vyšehrad motif returns, depicting the river’s approach to the castle as it enters Prague, that magical city.

Šarka is the most overtly programmatic of the six, telling in musical terms the legend of its titular warrior in the same cinematic detail Strauss would later use in his landmark tone poems. It’s a disturbing tale, wherein Šarka seeks revenge on all males after being a victim of infidelity. The violence of this unforgiving work was occasionally tempered by the lush, lyrical solos of principal clarinet Michael Rusinek. From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields opens with dark and stormy passion, but the sun soon emerges and warms the pastoral landscape. This gives way to a lively peasant dance, marked quasi-polka, vividly bringing to life the unfettered bucolic joy of the Czech countryside – perhaps the musical equivalent of the comforts of bread dumplings and a Pilsner.

The final two works form a dramatic pair, bound together by the topically by the Hussites and musically by the chorale Ktož jsú boží bojovníci (“Ye Who Are Mighty Warriors of God”), a Hussite war song. Tábor, south of Prague, was the focal point of the Hussite rebellion. The otherwise funereal mood of the penultimate tone poem is punctuated by the Hussite chorale, defiantly hammered out in the brass. Blaník picks up where the previous left off, unresolved. Named after the mountain where the defeated Hussites took refuge, Smetana imagines a glorious return to Prague as their chorale is superimposed over the venerable Vyšehrad theme, bolstering the cyclical nature of the work. The PSO negotiated the multitude of ideas in the resplendent final moments with great clarity in this most triumphant and victorious conclusion.