Bedrich Smetana is one of the best kept secrets of Western music; while The Moldau is a standard concert favorite and The Bartered Bride perhaps the best-known of all Czech operas, his whole output, from the operas down to polkas and simple piano dances, sparkles with inspiration, originality, and rhythmic verve. That the better part of Smetana's oeuvre falls into the realm of "neglected" is not terribly surprising; its publication history is chaotic, with many pieces not surfacing in print until long after the composer's death. The three CDs in Brilliant Classics' Bedrich Smetana: Complete Orchestral Works contain more of Smetana's orchestral music than does Supraphon's three-disc set with Vladimir Válek and the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra, released in 2007. Both sets include Smetana's massive cycle of symphonic poems, Má Vlast; the symphonic poems that fall outside the cycle, Wallenstein's Camp, Hàkon Jarl, and Richard III; and his lone Symphony in E major, Op. 6. Where they differ is in the incidentals; Brilliant's Theodore Kuchar, who here leads the Janácek Philharmonic, includes the dances and overture to The Bartered Bride, three overtures, two additional dances, and a march not covered by Válek, though Válek includes orchestral versions of two very early dances that Kuchar elects to omit. Although Brilliant's three discs are well filled, there would have been room for these additional dances. That two further orchestral overtures, orchestral overtures, dances to other operas, a number of orchestrated versions of dances, and a performing edition of Smetana's orchestral sketchbook, made by Jaroslav Smolka, exist outside of this "complete" edition must have been regarded as an "inconvenient truth" for Brilliant in so titling this set.
Válek's plodding and disinterested account of Smetana's orchestral music with Prague makes the Brilliant set more of a contender. However, Smetana's orchestral music benefits from precision of execution, and that is not a hallmark observed here; the percussion parts in the "Dance of the Comedians" from The Bartered Bride are sloppily played, and as a whole this recording has a top-heavy aspect; low-end response is not at a premium. Nevertheless, in terms of delivering a lot for a little, the Brilliant set is a bargain, and some of the less familiar material contains some surprises; Smetana's overture to the puppet play Doktor Faust (1862) sounds almost like something Leos Janácek could have written, say 50 years later. Má Vlast, however, does not come across with the intensity and power one experiences with recordings by Kubelík and Mackerras dedicated to that work alone. If one is looking to connect with a large swath of Smetana's orchestral music in one place, at low cost, Brilliant Classics' Bedrich Smetana: Complete Orchestral Works is a great deal; just bear in mind that it's not really complete, and that viable alternatives for at least some of its content may be found elsewhere.