It is exciting to have the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra performing such a large proportion of Dvořák’s orchestral music. Reference to past recordings of his repertoire brings magnificent readings with this ensemble – notably by Ančerl, Kubelík, Neumann, Pešek, Šejna, Smetáček and Talich.
They included some of the finest Supraphon sound-quality but this Decca set gives the Czech Phil a slightly different tone because the venue is the Rudolfinum; the orchestra’s home since 1992. The older recordings in the House of Artists were remarkably consistent and the gentle die-away of resonance gave a gentle glow while leaving detail unclouded. I believe that it is the hall rather than the engineers that is responsible for the new sound, a good example being the 1999 recording of the Slavonic Dances by Charles Mackerras in which Supraphon engineers captured a quality similar to this Decca production.
There is a subtlety of inflection required in Czech music, heard mainly in performances by those of Czech nationality. This seems to parallel the gift of the Viennese above all others to play their music in the appropriate style. Admittedly this is a subjective impression but with Jiří Bělohlávek at the helm of his country’s principal orchestra the Czech element is tangibly present in every performance.
The inclusion of Dvořák’s three great Concertos in this mainly symphonic group is a real bonus and gives the benefit of avoiding the mid-Symphony breaks which were a disadvantage in the excellent set conducted by Witold Rowicki (LSO; Philips). The Cello Concerto was performed at the BBC Proms by these artists on 24 August this year. The broadcast gave the opportunity to hear a reading with conductor and soloist in excellent rapport but it is interesting to find that the earlier-recorded version is not similar. It is true to say that the first few gentle notes of the opening melody are phrased in such a way that a ‘Czech style’ performance is foreshadowed. To expound the horn-led second subject so broadly is something of a surprise (by the way there is none of the vibrato favoured by Czech players in recordings of half a century ago). When it comes to the soloist, vibrato seems to be an integral part of Alisa Weilerstein’s playing style. It is applied generally and not just for expressive purposes and I am not convinced of its value in the more forceful passages. Both soloist and orchestra are able to play really quietly but I was concerned that the whole orchestra sometimes plays more quietly than the cellist (and she is too closely balanced). Timpani are not particularly prominent – possibly a musical choice rather than engineering because they are clear when playing softly. In this recording the finale suddenly gathers itself together after the cello’s first entry – I don’t recall that in the recent concert performance. Conversely the long slow section near the end of the finale seems interminably dreamy. I agree that Dvořák is mostly responsible for this musical hiatus but I have rarely heard it drawn out at such length. It may be a logical conclusion to this particular interpretation but at this pace with such languid phrasing the music barely holds together. Regarding quiet music I found Weilerstein’s approach to the slow movement more convincing.
Unlike the Cello Concerto, recordings of the Violin Concerto are not peppered with famous names although Adolf Busch, Kulenkampff and Stern come to mind. Of current performers I much admire Richard Tognetti, but I find Josef Suk’s recording the most memorable of all – and inevitably the most ‘Czech’. Frank Peter Zimmerman plays with directness and there is certainly oneness with the conductor. There is flexibility of tempo but Zimmerman never overdoes the elements of expression – he moulds the music but does not take liberties. This is a confident performance – a touch swifter in the outer movements than with some. He is not afraid to use the occasional touch of portamento but always does so tastefully. I know it is not really relevant but I like to think that this is appropriate since he uses a 1711 Stradivarius which was once the property of Fritz Kreisler. Balance here is good, orchestral playing is particularly incisive in the finale and the timpani reproduction is more natural than in the Cello Concerto.
The Piano Concerto – never the most popular of Dvořák’s works – deserves to be performed by a notable artist and here Garrick Ohlsson is a welcome inclusion. He takes a generally calm view of this expansive work and the orchestra tends to represent a comfortable cushion of sound. I have long thought the sinking into quiet thoughtfulness halfway through the opening Allegro agitato to be a strange whim of the composer but, since it is impossible to relate it to the overall tempo, Ohlsson convincingly interprets the relaxation gently and sensitively. By contrast the arrival of the Schumann-like theme three-quarters through is given with delightful rhythmic pointing. This movement is almost a work in itself so the gentleness with which the second-movement Andante sostenuto makes this a thoughtful interlude and justifies the measured tempo – a good preparation for the dash of the finale, given with lightness of touch but with a more positive contribution from the orchestra. If Brahms and Schumann are recalled in the earlier part of this work, Dvořák seems to look back to the humorous side of Weber or Hummel in the livelier episodes.
As I approached this attractive-looking set I recalled that in the days of LP the sleeves and labels would go by the old assumption that there were only five Symphonies which were numbered from 1 to 5 but in fact they were 6, 7, 5, 8, 9 respectively. The first two Symphonies are long – around 50 or more minutes each – or they would be except that Bělohlávek does not observe the lengthy first-movement exposition repeats in either work. In fact he takes a personal view of this subject. Dvořák wrote in exposition repeats in numbers 1, 2, 4, 5, 6 and 9 and the shape of these movements shows the wisdom of that decision but Bělohlávek makes first movement repeats only in 4 and 5.
The neglected Symphony No.1 was not given its ‘Bells of Zlonice’ title by the composer although he is later said to have approved it. There is no programme and this is rather a large Romantic work from 1865 and as with all Dvořák’s Symphonies the form is similar to that used by Brahms; that is to say it takes a late-19th-century view of symphonic form, respecting the sonata layout of the classical era but moulding it to accommodate the dramatic ideas of the later period. The work is full of folk influences and suits Bělohlávek very well – especially in the third movement marked Allegretto – it could be regarded as a scherzo but it sounds far more like an extended Slavonic Dance – the typical fragmentary twists and slight pauses are brought out superbly. The final Allegro animato is triumphal by nature but not subtle and this performance drives it forward, sweeping relentlessly through the young Dvořák’s momentary toying with a fugal passage (the legendary quote from teachers of composition comes to mind: “when in doubt write a fugue”).
Symphony No.2 shows the composer at the same stage of maturity and as with No.1 the extensive outer movements are like tone-poems. The huge slow movement does not outstay its welcome because here the playing and the shaping of the themes is immaculate – an opportunity to be bathed in beautiful music for a quarter of an hour. The scherzo is strange – no classical form here just a long, cheerful sequence of folk-like themes and this performance dances.
Symphony No.3 is the only work with three movements and shows concentration on the unusually lengthy slow movement marked Adagio molto, tempo di Marcia. The booklet note suggests the influence of Tannhäuser but for me Wagnerian influence is even more recognisable near the very start of the Symphony with its remarkable echo of Rienzi. The finale merits comparison with the confident episodes in the later symphonies, especially in this powerful performance, strong themes pressing eagerly forward, the Czech Philharmonic playing with power and precision.
I am unable to agree with the booklet note that suggests Symphony No.4 “is less confident” and “a staging post on the way to the much more assured Fifth” because the structure seems more taut than hitherto and the second subject is a fine example of one of Dvořák’s ’nationalist’ types of melody being successfully incorporated into the structure – Bělohlávek stresses this by anticipating its entry with a slight relaxation before resuming tempo at its entry – perhaps an indication of the conductor’s subtle shaping without detracting from his objective overview of the music. This is the Symphony where the nature of Dvořák s approach to the scherzo (as a form) begins to show itself. Though not melodically remarkable, the orchestration is exciting and the tempo marking is Allegro feroce. This performance does not quite achieve the ‘L’istesso tempo’ marking at the start of the trio and, perhaps because of the minor slowing beforehand, the music does not continue with the ‘feroce’ instruction which should still apply. To achieve continuity in the face of such a demanding instruction is not easy but Rowicki managed to do so. The folk-dance beginning of the finale is a surprise but proves to be a decent basis for a varied and rhythmically intriguing movement, superbly executed here.
If Symphony No.5 shows greater maturity, perhaps it is because of the greater originality of its themes. Bělohlávek takes a broad view of the splendid first movement as did Libor Pešek in his magnificent recording for Virgin with the same orchestra. The sad, beautiful Andante con moto benefits from the allegretto-like nature of Bělohlávek’s tempo and one of Dvořák’s finest scherzos is given with much buoyancy of rhythm – which is not quite sustained in the trio.
It is difficult to understand why Dvořák expressed doubts about having required the exposition repeat in Symphony No.6’s first movement, because, looking at the classical contour of it, it is essential and quite a few conductors observe it. I much regret that Bělohlávek omits it. That apart this is a very fine performance, one that challenges the excellent Czech Philharmonic version conducted by Šejna. The subtlety of the slow movement’s ending is worth noting, the ‘Furiant’ that follows is invigorating and the various elements of the finale are drawn firmly together.
Symphony No.7 is a challenge: in this work, some great names have failed and others have triumphed. Here Bělohlávek’s best ‘Czech’ qualities are evident and the surge that he brings to the outer movements is joyful (despite the work’s minor key). I particularly like the breath of the ultimate coda. Needless to say the swagger of the rhythms in the scherzo is a true display of Czech authenticity.
There may be a few raised eyebrows at the long-standing tradition which involves commencing Symphony No.8 slowly and then accelerating to the tutti where a faster speed is taken in contradiction of Dvořák’s instruction for the music to be Allegro con brio throughout the entire passage. The effect is to provide an unintended slow introduction and requires a pulling back of tempo in order to parallel the slow speed of the opening theme when it returns several minutes later. True ‘Un poco meno mosso’ is marked in the score for those few bars but in this performance the reduction in speed of this passage is a great deal more than ‘Un poco’. More encouragingly however the finale is given a straight-through approach avoiding the piecemeal effect sometimes imposed on it and the coda is thrilling.
All manner of traditions get imposed on Symphony No.9, ‘From the New World’; most notably taking each of the three themes of the Allegro molto first movement at a different pace – each slowing in turn. I can think of few conductors – John Barbirolli, Colin Davis (Amsterdam) and Kyril Kondrashin (Vienna) who obeys the score exactly. Bělohlávek does not slow the second subject as damagingly as some but the third theme with its flute solo is very sluggish. Omission of the repeat makes this the shortest movement of the four but there is still much to treasure including the fine cor anglais solo in the Largo. The instrument used has a particularly beautiful tone and is balanced in an ideal way, emerging from the orchestra rather than being spot-lit. The scherzo is suitably fiery and the finale is expressively dramatic. The playing is especially fine from an orchestra which must be exceptionally familiar with this work, but somehow, given that this is a rather special set of Dvořák’s Symphonies, I am a little disappointed that the ‘New World’ is projected in a way similar to many another performance – though few of them have displayed such satisfying woodwind detail and skilled execution.
The warmly spacious sound is generally consistent throughout, although there may be a slight hint of greater ‘presence’ in Symphonies 3 and 7. With the exception of the Cello Concerto I have very few concerns about the overall balance. Enthusiasts will be well aware of the insights to this music that István Kertész (also Decca) brought many years ago and his recordings sound amazingly well given their age. I greatly admire the honest straightforwardness of Rowicki and prefer his set by a very small margin because of his obedience to the score although he too was unduly conventional in the ‘New World’. It is to their great credit that an English orchestra (the LSO) with Hungarian (Kertész) and Polish conductors were able to get to the heart of essentially Czech music. Only in subsequent individual performances have these two bench-mark sets been surpassed. (Don’t overlook Suitner and Kubelík – Ed.) Jiří Bělohlávek has the huge advantage of the Czech Philharmonic at the Rudolfinum and, while realising that there will be collectors who own outstanding individual recordings, this very comprehensive collection represents a notable achievement.