My Land? My Country? My Homeland? That last translation of Bedrich Smetana’s Má vlast best summarises the prevailing mood of this fervent Czech nationalist. Written between 1874 and 1879, Smetana’s cycle of symphonic poems adds a national programme to the mythic tradition of Liszt. This is music of castles, knights and folklore, musical poetry of the highest quality.

Daniel Barenboim conducts the Berlin Philharmonic
© Monika Rittershaus

The full work is still a relative unknown to UK audiences. Although the flowing Vltava crops up regularly on concert programmes, the whole cycle only received its first BBC Proms performance in 2011. Part of this rarity is down to its indelible association with Czech identity. The opening, Vyšehrad, depicts the old, high seat of the early Czech kings; elsewhere, there are battles both fictional and real, but always unmistakably Czech. The country’s official independence occurred much later, but pieces like Má vlast helped form a cultural identity to fortify that push. Hearing the piece played by non-Czech teams (here, Daniel Barenboim and the Berlin Philharmonic) always makes for an interesting listen; this performance didn’t disappoint.

Streaming the concert from the UK via the Philharmonic’s fantastic Digital Concert Hall platform, there’s still a pang of jealousy that accompanies the little bits of new-normal concert etiquette. Beginning with an elbow bump shared between concertmaster and conductor, and ending with a masked orchestra exiting the stage, the good humour of these strange but ultimately small moments only serves to highlight how far behind the UK sits in response to this crisis. An appropriately distanced audience listened as crystalline harps carefully (if uneasily) led us towards the castle of Vyšehrad. Weighty woodwind leans through the poems’ unifying motif introduced the crux of Barenboim’s Má vlast: power.

Daniel Barenboim conducts Má vlast
© Monika Rittershaus

Smetana’s most poetic writing comes in the famous span of Vltava, which depicts the river’s journey from source through to the great city of Prague. Opening with a spinning-wheel-like figure in the flutes, it wisps gently before meeting the famous melody. Barenboim approached Vltava like a Classical symphony, standing off for the most part whilst choosing his moments for injections of dynamism. But in music so flowing, it gave the whole setting a lurching, ungainly quality. Elsewhere, jagged hemiolas and pointed interjections meant the cycle’s embattled bombast came far too soon in proceedings, dulling the brightness of its major-key conclusion.

Later in the cycle, where music and subjects are more martial, the performance sat much easier. The austere opening of Tábor (a depiction of the strategic centre of the Hussite warriors) and the hammering of the chivalrous knights of Blaník introduced wonderful moments of woodwind and horn conversation that built to a terrific conclusion. But you get the feeling this would have had more impact if the opening movements had opted for majesty over force.

Of Má vlast’s accompanying narratives, the story of the warrior Šárka is by far the most interesting. Like Rapunzel with a twist, the title character awaits rescue from the dashing knight Ctirad; once released she drugs him and his soldiers with mead, before murdering the whole party in their sleep. The subject of a little-performed opera by Janáček, it was the Berlin Philharmonic’s best bit of storytelling here, with low brass and trumpets giving the ending suitable bite. There were other fantastic moments; the folk dance amidst Bohemia’s Woods and Fields had all the exuberance of its fellow Bohemian dance tunes. But these were moments only, and in a work of 80 minutes in total, it’s an interpretation that needed more colour and warmth.

This performance was reviewed from the Digital Concert Hall video stream.