This on-going series of Dvořák’s Symphonies nears completion, and there is no doubt that when completed, assuming the exceptional standards it has demonstrated up to now are maintained, it will be the finest since the LSO/Kertész Decca recordings of half a century ago, and in some points – scholarship, editions used, recording quality and maturity of interpretation – surpasses that set. Indeed, the recording quality is totally immaculate – beautifully balanced and ‘placed’ within an ideal acoustic.
José Serebrier’s grasp of this music is remarkably fine, as the earlier releases have confirmed: his approach is utterly natural and uncannily right, never hurried for the sake of ‘effectiveness’ and excitement – though there is plenty of the latter when called for. This latest release is particularly significant for it contains alongside the familiar Eighth Symphony the finest accounts of the neglected Legends, which older collectors may fondly recall from a 12-inch Philips (ex-US Columbia) LP under Thomas Scherman and the Little Orchestra Society (of New York) – an issue that had a wider circulation than a roughly contemporaneous Supraphon LP version under Karel Sejna.
Each Legend is a miniature tone-poem, akin to orchestral versions of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces, with which they share some characteristics. The ‘stories’ of these Legends are never stated, nor are the individual pieces given titles, but they are each complete in themselves. They were originally written for piano-duet, later orchestrated by Dvořák, emphasising through subtle instrumental colouration the intriguing harmonic bases which support the composer’s folk-like thematic material (without being folksongs). Above all, it is Dvořák’s lyrical gift which is the more immediately appealing aspect of these endearing creations, showing his mastery of the shortest forms as the Symphony does of the largest structures. Serebrier directs absolutely enchanting accounts of each Legend, a strong impression being given that this music was recorded during particularly happy and musically fulfilling sessions. The playing is wonderfully flexible and wholly entrancing.
In the Eighth Symphony (Serebrier’s second recording of it), the conductor’s mastery of orchestral balance – which gift Stokowski indentified in Serebrier very early in his career – is also to the fore, producing a performance that is full of fire, colour and discipline, allied to a sensitivity in the slow movement that does not abjure romantic warmth and tonal richness. The first movement is gloriously played, rich in tone and deliberate in tempo (though always moving forward and never too deliberate), firmly outlined and genuinely expressive; the slow movement begins almost immediately, with remarkable and wholly convincing dramatic effect. This Adagio is really sung, with admirable wealth of eloquence, Serebrier’s delicacy in the handling of detail is exceptional, and in the Allegretto grazioso third movement and in a thrilling account of the finale the music is given with considerable musicianship: all things considered this is without question one of the finest performances (if not the finest performance) of this Symphony I have ever heard.