Smetana composed his E-major Symphony between 1853 and 1854 to commemorate the wedding of Emperor Franz Joseph; he named it ‘Triumphal’ Symphony. The work ends with an exultant reference to the ‘Emperor’s Hymn’. When Haydn wrote the latter, the Emperor was pleased, but in Smetana’s time the then royal was not so cooperative and Smetana could not get permission to dedicate the Symphony to him. In 1881 – a generation later – Smetana made revisions to the scoring and removed some bars. The ‘Triumphal’ title was not used for the 1882 performance of music that later became known as Festive Symphony.
The opening Allegro starts boldly, and subsidiary melodies crowd in to this tautly constructed movement with an occasional hint of the Haydn. Darrell Ang drives through the music at a swift pace to give a sense of optimism. In the Largo maestoso, Smetana does not disguise the Hymn but there is no shortage of other ideas; despite the tempo marking, this is a march which starts quietly and expands grandly. The Scherzo is a Furiant and the Trio a Polka, all expressively played with authentically Czech stresses to the rhythms. At one time, this movement was performed alone. The Finale is heavily Hymn-influenced: there are two sections which are a reminder of the old saying “when in doubt write a fugue”. It is only to be expected that the ending would involve the grandest of statements and surges forward without a hint of pomposity to provide an exciting conclusion.
The selections from The Bartered Bride find Ang in full sympathy with the many folk rhythms. He is not afraid to exaggerate those rhythmic ‘lifts’ which the dances beg to be given. The conductor’s understanding recalls performances by great Czech conductors such as Talich, Kubelík or Šejna. The orchestra plays superbly in the dashing account of the Overture, the strings distinguishing themselves in the demanding swift passages.
The colourful immediacy of the recording captures every detail. The Symphony may not be Smetana’s greatest composition but this vivid presentation shows that his orchestration is masterly.