On Thursday night Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra undertook what is perhaps its most courageous programme for some years — challenging us not with the demands of the contemporary, but with rarely performed music from the audience-friendly zone of the 19th century.
The six symphonic poems of Smetana's Ma Vlast (My Fatherland) were once the stuff of textbooks and CD recordings. Written between 1874 and 1879, the cycle was mainly known through its second instalment, the vivid river trip of Vltava, evoking rippling waters, folk dancing, architectural splendour, roaring rapids and water sprites in an almost cinematic 12 minutes.
Now, thanks to the APO with the inspirational James Judd on the podium, we had the opportunity to hear this old concert favourite in its intended context.
Judd set a suitably heroic tone for Smetana's opening Vysehrad. Sweeping harps introduced sonorous horns, benefiting from two distinguished Americans in their ranks. Grandeur was the order of the day, with strings fearless in often precipitous territory, setting high standards for the rest of the concert.
It was certainly the perfect introduction to a memorable Vltava, highlighting Smetana's many orchestral subtleties.
The third poem, Sarko, a tale of a vengeful warrior maiden, dispensed fire and fury with the sort of illustrative writing that would have assured Smetana of a Hollywood career in the next century. And, in amongst all the fire and fury, clarinettist Jonathan Cohen dispensed the purest poetry.
From Bohemia's Woods and Forests is the most popular poem after Vltava, and Judd almost choregraphed its contrasts, from its mesmerising first section to powerful muted strings in muscular counterpoint. The occasional bursts of polka merriment were handled with knife-edge precision.
The two final poems somehow merge, both in their overt patriotism and in their musical content. The atmospheric launch of the closing Blanik particularly impressed, and the players made the most of Smetana's many folksy excursions, reminding us that this was the man who composed The Bartered Bride.
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What: Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra
Where: Auckland Town Hall