This is the first issue in a projected complete set of Dvořák’s Nine Symphonies. British-born Karel Mark Chichon has been music director of the Saarbrücken-based Deutsche Radio Philharmonie for the last four years. Looking at details of his career, no Czech connections seem mentioned but maybe his first name hints at a link and certainly his approach to Dvořák, especially when the music is of a dance-like nature, has a very Bohemian feel to it.
Distinguished Czech conductors have recorded the cycle – notably Bělohlávek, Kubelík, Neumann and Válek, but Kertész, Rowicki and Serebrier have proved that musicians from other cultures can also be fully sympathetic to Czech style.
In Chichon’s interpretation of Dvořák’s somewhat neglected First Symphony (‘The Bells of Zlonice’) there are moments when there seems to be great empathy with the composer. The first such occurs after the opening fanfare – the beginning of the following Allegro is marked pianissimo and the orchestra here is magically hushed, the subsequent climactic passage becoming all the more exciting as a result – shades of Kubelík.
Another example is Chichon’s approach to the third movement – an Allegretto which will pass for a Scherzo except that it is in a loose form and provides a series of folk-like melodies. What could be described as a ‘trio’ section is achieved by simply providing different tunes before the first ideas return. Chichon is particularly at one with the essentially Czech nature of the music. At an identical tempo Bělohlávek is no less Czech when he sweeps the fragmentary music along firmly whereas Chichon slightly leans on the quirky changes of melody: two slightly differing approaches but each resulting in an appropriate feeling of gentle cheerfulness.
Altogether there is much sensitivity in Chichon’s conducting; the second movement is marked Adagio di molto and this is a challenging contrary instruction but an appropriate tempo is adopted and the pastoral woodwind themes are allowed to expand without lingering. The powerful outer movements are shaped with impressive firmness and the discursive build-up to the coda of the finale is kept under control. The grandeur of the opening movement is not quite as effective as it might have been because the exposition repeat is not taken – this is not the most damaging of omissions since but there seems no reason why the prescribed proportions of the work should not have been honoured.
Perhaps the Rhapsody (1874) is rarely heard because unlike other Dvořák’s symphonic poems it has no specific title. It stands apart from the three Slavonic Rhapsodies (Opus 45) of about four years later. The fully-scored Rhapsody seems like incidental music to an unwritten play. Certainly there is a slight similarity, with its harp solo, to foreshadow the start of ‘Vyšehrad’ the first piece in Smetana’s Má vlast cycle. With the Rhapsodie one episode follows another, so it could be that some sort of drama was in Dvořák’s mind: there are many sudden switches of mood and it is certainly an exercise in colourful orchestration.
The recordings are weighty within a spacious setting. Full orchestra is boldly presented, definition of the woodwinds, so important with Dvořák, is well captured but the lower frequencies lack detail and the timbres of cellos, double basses and timpani do not always separate from each other. The Rhapsody has greater clarity.