Ma Vlast

Review of the Czech National Symphony Orchestra playing Ma Vlast in London, 3 February

The surge of ­nationalist ­sentiment that spread through Europe during the second half of the 19th ­century had profound artistic as well as political consequences. In music, few countries were served as well as ­Bohemia, now the Czech Republic, perhaps because, in the context of ­Bohemia's status as an ­increasingly ­disgruntled province of the Austro-Hungarian empire, the ­focus was aspirational and ­nostalgic rather than bombastic and ­sentimental. At the centre of the ­Bohemian ­renaissance is Ma Vlast ("My Country"), Bedrich Smetana's set of six symphonic poems, vivid, masterful depictions of elements of Czech landscape and myth.

Libor Pešek directed many fine ­performances while chief conductor of the ­Liverpool Philharmonic, including one in Prague shortly after the "velvet ­revolution" of 1990. Twenty years later, as part of a series of ­bi-decennial celebrations, Pešek has brought the Czech National Symphony Orchestra to London.

Conducting from memory throughout, Pešek showed himself fully alive to the depth of Smetana's scoring. He could be seen giving every lead, ­shaping each phrase and riding on every ripple in the great river Vltava, the subject of the ­second and most famous of the poems. I would dearly have loved to hear the ­performance in Pešek's head.

Unfortunately, I had to make do with the one presented by the orchestra, who appeared not to have noticed their ­conductor. The performance was, in a word, leaden. In more words, it was scrappy and almost entirely lacking in insight. There were fine moments in the fifth poem, Tábor, and the polka in the fourth, but these remained – much like Pešek himself – isolated and adrift in a disengaged and plodding traversal of Smetana's beloved landscape.

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