Smetana's "Má Vlast" Direct-to-Disc Produces A Sonic and Musical Spectacular

“I have to admit that this (D2D) recording technique was completely unknown to me before. When I ultimately realized what it entailed, I had mixed feelings at first.” So admitted Jakub Hrusa, the Bamberg Symphony’s 39 year old Czech-born conductor who joined the orchestra in 2016. Based on the stunning musical and sonic results it was well worth whatever trepidation resulted from the decision to proceed with the recording of Czech-born Bedrich Smetana, which took place July 2th/26th, 2019 in Bamberg, Germany’s Joseph-Keilberth-Saal concert hall. (please forgive the lack of proper accents over the names).

Though the orchestra, which has historical roots in Prague, has performed often and recorded Smetana’s “Má Vlast” (“My Country”)—it was the first recording released by the orchestra under Mr. Hrusa’s direction— the Direct-to-Disc experience can be daunting for reasons understood by most AnalogPlanet readers. Ultimately, the conductor realized that “You don’t get the chance to try something so extraordinary every day.” Indeed!

I’ve not compared this D2D performance with the orchestra’s 2016 original CD, but in the notes the conductor notes that he prefers live recordings of his concerts to studio recordings, concluding, “This is precisely why I consider a recording project that resembles the concern situation to be an inspiring challenge. You’re working on a deeply honest document.”

Without a doubt this must sound better than the the 2016 CD. Without comparison to the earlier recording, this is a rousing, exciting performance filled with the reverential warmth and passion appropriate for a patriotic piece. If this is how the orchestra plays holding back due to direct-to-disc fears, I’d love to hear it full bore!

“Má Vlast” is in six parts, none longer than 15+ minutes so the producer chose to record each to a side of 3 45rpm records. It worked out perfectly.

The conductor notes in the annotation that “Outside the Czech Republic the whole cycle is rarely performed; one sticks to sections like the popular Vltava”. That’s the second of the six (side two) and is the familiar “The Moldau”, which everyone knows whether or not they know it.

So, unlike symphonic works, there’s no need to play the sides in order. You could start on side two, or if you want to hear some sonic and musical fireworks, you could begin with “Tábor” on side E (third record) and you’ll be treated early on to some major tympani whacks. All sides are enjoyable.

Rainer Maillard, who oversaw the D2D Brahms Symphonic Cycle and the more recent Haitink conducted Bruckner 7th, both with the BPO, engineered this box set.

Unlike the Berlin Philharmonie Hall, with its more open architecture, the Joseph-Keilberth-Saal concert hall is a rectangular “shoe box” configuration, and while it doesn’t have an old school proscenium arch, the sonics are warmer (as is the orchestra) and the reverberation more pronounced, though still mild compared to older “classic” concert halls. The result is a somewhat warm, inviting overall sound, yet the imaging and soundstage picture are both strongly presented and well-detailed. Overall, absolutely spectacular sounding.

For this production Mr. Maillard brought his VMS80 lathe/Neumann SX74 cutting system to Bamberg and used Sennheiser MKH800 Twin and MKH30 microphones with the first two picking up most of the orchestral sound. They fed a Sonosax SX-ST8 mixing console and a Neumann SP79 mastering console and that's it!

The sumptuous box packaging, the full sized booklet printed on heavy stock, filled with photos of the session and the Optimal-pressed vinyl all contribute to a memorable set. Accentus Music chose to press but 1111 copies. It’s not quite sold out from what I can see, but you’ll have to search to find a copy. It will be well worth the effort. Do not miss this!

Chemguy's picture

...crazy good, Michael! I’m In!

tonyqin65's picture

Looks like it is all sold out? Cannot find it except in the secondary market.

Wymax's picture

Seems to be available at AcousticSounds:

For the EU, which is where I live, it could be ordered from (which I did), but they seem to have run out. Would seem that AcousticSounds is the place to get it, even if you live outside of the US.

tonyqin65's picture

Thanks for your reply. Saw it was on back order on acoustic sounds. Not sure if they are going to get more stocks. Appreciate it nonetheless!

Wymax's picture

Apologies for that, I actually checked out the "Buy" button before writing my answer, and at that time I didn't notice anything about being back ordered, I even looked for it. Now it shows that status.

culturcide's picture

I came for the graphic design, but stayed for the music.

Jenn's picture

a fantastic recording. One of the finest sounding records I’ve yet heard, and a great performance. Michael, may I presume to check you on a little thing? In the first paragraph, you refer to Maestro as the composer. He is, as you know, the conductor..
Thanks for this review.

Michael Fremer's picture
conductor. of course. Will ficks
CJB's picture

Really well done. Next best classical dtd after my reference, which is M&K Realtime 1978 release of the 4th movement of Beethoven's 9th.

Lazer's picture

Because not only do I own this fine recording but I’m pretty sure it’s also the first time I’ve purchased such a great record before Mikey’s review, not after. Thanks for all the great information throughout the years. I’m sure Mikey is still responsible for me making this purchase because of everything I’ve learned from him here and in Stereophile.

afarooqui's picture

Just a heads-up - I saw only one review on Amazon for this. Though the music is rated excellent, the reviewer notes that the quality of the pressing that he got was pretty bad in terms of noise and pops and also a defect on one of the sides.

Dr Freejazz's picture

There was a pressing issue at one side in my copy, too. JPC sent me a new record with no problems. The performance is the best since Karel Ancerl imo. The sound is nothing sort of fantastic.

Dr Freejazz's picture

nothing short of fantastic, I meant.

billsf's picture

I bought this from when you wrote about it the first time. The copy I got had a skip on the first disc. I had to return it. The 2nd copy had a warp. I kept it. It looks like I'm not the only one who had problems with the pressing.

steviec's picture

I purchased one of these via Amazon. Sadly it was past the return date before I got to play it. Lovely recording, let down by bad pressing and a big scratch right through the last bit of The Moldau.

parablue's picture

Should anyone monitoring this thread be interested, this recording was still available in late September, from Accentus Music. I emailed them directly, not having found it listed with any online retailers. My set arrived yesterday. The pressings I received were flat, quiet and without artifacts or defects. The aural presentation was exceptional. Both LP's and packaging were every bit as good as described in MF's review. I was told by Accentus' Label Manager that they had 'a few copies still available...' The set was number 1085. If Accentus is selling the last few sequentially, there would have been 26 left, of the 1111 pressed, as of 9.27.