Since he recorded the classic stereo collection of Smetana tone poems in 1972, Rafael Kubelik has been the consensus leader in the repertory. His recording has seen many challengers. Recently, first Vladimir Valek, and then Theodore Kuchar, recorded three-CD collections of Smetana's orchestral music. Now comes Gianandrea Noseda in what is likely to be another complete collection to compete with the sets by Valek and Kuchar.
In this installment, Noseda includes the big three tone poems and some other trifles to fill out his CD at 75:30. While the add-ons are variably nice and ordinary and give you a limited perspective into Smetana's ability to write concert music, it is the meaty tone poems that is the reason anyone should consider buying this CD.
Here we deal with the three so-called "Swedish" tone poems. The trio -- Richard III, Wallenstein's Camp and Hakon Jarl -- represent a peak in Czech national music in the tone poem genre along with compositions by Dvoark such as the Golden Spinning Wheel and The Noonday Witch. Like Dvorak's fabled tales, Smetana's are written on legends both Czech and otherwise.
Gianandrea Noseda, if you've never heard of him, is a young conductor whose first posts came in the late 1990s. He is (or was) chief conductor of the BBC Philharmonic, the orchestra represented here, and has recorded regularly with them. Along with what appears to be this new project of Smetana's orchestral music, the pair have recorded three CDs of Liszt tone poems. Those recordings have received poor reviews in USA and better reviews in England, where certain organizations praise anything published by UK-based Chandos.
I think Noseda is OK in Smetana's creations but not very individual and not intemperate, a quality the gives the music heart and wing. He conducts well and the orchestra plays well for him, in a reserved British way, but these recordings lack the umption and emotional abandon Kubelik brings to them in his 1972 recording, which is paired with a meatier makeweight -- Janacek's Sinfonietta. When Kubelik conducts Wallenstein's camp, you are right there with the men at daybreak. When Noseda conducts it, it is another concert on a CD.
I've heard Noseda previously on freebie CDs I get with my subscrition to BBC Music Magazine. He tends to extend and compress tempos so they are either faster or slower than most competitors. I think this worked well on a BBC Music Nag recording of Prokofiev's Symphony 5. But American critics blasted him for dragging tempos in his Liszt recordings. I think he eschews this character, for the most part, in this recording, and I think that's probably a good thing. He does tend to get a little too quiet sometimes, however.
I last listened to a new recording of these tone poems when the Kuchar collection came out from Brilliant last year. Kuchar, an American, was assisted by the Janacek Philharmonic Orchestra. I graded his complete set four stars. In the tone poems, I thought Kuchar didn't match Kubelik either but he came closer than Noseda, whose lower pressure and temperature versions lack the Kubelik's vision and the commitment he encouraged from the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra.
As to the sound, I was surprised to learnon direct comparison that there isn't much difference between the two. Noseda's 2007 recording may have an edge in definition or a tad more presence but Kubelik's classic sound is 98 percent of the way there and it's not the manufactured sound we often heard in the 1970s. Kubelik has a much better orchestra and, with a better addition in the Janacek, the totality of his package, even with some skimpy notes, puts him head and shoulders above this and the other newcomers.
If you are shopping around for a set of Smetana's tone poems (if you like the tone poems of Liszt, Tchaikovsky, Strauss or Dvoark you will enjoy these very much), you don't have to confine yourself to the newbies. Most great Czech conductors from the past have recorded some or all of them including Vaclav Neumann, Karel Sejna and Vaclav Talich. Some are in mono, some in stereo and one is in quadrophonic. I can't vouch for them although I suggest you avoid Kubelik's early mono version with Czech Philharmonic unless you really, really like old recordings. His stereo version on DG is much better, in my view.
It's still the breadwinner in this repertory, for me, and I suggest you ignore this issue and get it instead. If you can't find the out of print DG pressing on Amazon (they were available for as little as $8.50 the day I wrote this), Arkiv Music has bought the rights and will burn you a copy for $17. It may seem a lot to pay for an older recording but you'll soon see, and hear, that it is in fact a very good buy, much better than this one.