This sequence of attractive music by Dvořák features an outstanding young Czech violinist from Plzen, Jan Mráček, who was 24 at the time of recording. He studied with Magdaléna Micková and Jiří Fišer in Prague and Jan Pospíchal in Vienna and is also something of a protégée of Václav Hudeček. Throughout a quite demanding programme, he does not put a foot wrong. The Czech National Symphony Orchestra was founded in 1993 and appears to work on anything from film soundtracks to pop concerts, as well as classical music – it has recorded a Fibich series for Naxos.
Dvořák’s Violin Concerto, completed in 1880, had a sticky start in life and was not generally appreciated for decades. Among the international soloists of the old school only Adolf Busch, who first played it in 1910, championed it (and he left a 1944 live recording which is not perfect but still well worth hearing). Lukewarm versions in the 1930s by Georg Kulenkampff (with a dreadful edition) and the young Yehudi Menuhin did it few favours but things started looking up when Váša Příhoda made his wartime recording. Jascha Heifetz never played it but Nathan Milstein’s recording alerted the Americans to its quality, the composer’s great-grandson Josef Suk III recorded it twice with exceptional grace and authenticity, and in more recent times most of the well-known violinists have played and recorded it. In general, I have found myself preferring the various Czech soloists. If the work has a problem, it is that Dvořák rather foreshortened the opening movement, which would not have suffered by being a minute or two longer. I have always wondered if the various revisions inspired by Joseph Joachim – who never played it – were good for the work.
The orchestra makes quite a good, solid sound at the outset but James Judd could have demanded even more punctilious rhythm for the opening flourishes. The basic tempo is also just a tad slow. Mráček plays very well from the start – the soloist enters almost immediately – and he seems equally comfortable with the declamatory and lyrical passages, playing with consistently lovely tone. He handles the beautiful transition to the Adagio very well and when he gets to outlining its main theme, he does not press too hard; he also integrates the outburst in the centre of the movement convincingly into the whole. He dances pretty well at the start of the Finale, as does the orchestra, although once again the orchestral rhythm could be tighter and the basic tempo is on the slow side. The passage in double-stops has the special quality that it needs and Mráček really goes for the coda. The woodwind playing has that bucolic Czech character.
In the Romance, an early work based on the slow movement of the F-minor String Quartet, the orchestra sounds very nice at the opening and Mráček distils the right Romantic feeling, using a certain amount of portamento – as, indeed, he does in the Concerto. He is suitably dramatic in the central section. The Mazurek skips along very agreeably and Mráček’s double-stops are excellent, as is the more yearning quality of the second theme. It is a splendid piece when it is performed as well as this.
The Four Romantic Pieces – arranged from the Trio for violins and viola that Dvořák wrote as a replacement when one of the intended players could not manage the intended Terzetto – are consistently melodious and make a delightful impression when they are so well played. The piano part is definitely an accompaniment rather than an equal partner but Lukaš Klanský, son of the famous Ivan, plays with a wonderfully light touch to set off Mráček’s gorgeous playing.
The sound quality is excellent and comparisons do not really come into play, as I cannot find a rival release that matches this programme. Several violinists have recorded the three works with orchestra together: I have the discs by Hudeček, Bohuslav Matoušek and Frantíšek Novotný, all of which I like. Suk has the Fantasy by his grandfather Josef Suk I for coupling, as has Ivan Ženatý; while Jana Nováková’s performance is paired with Dvořák’s Piano Concerto.
I mentioned Mráček’s slightly slow basic tempos in the outer movements of the Concerto. Some timing for the three movements may be of interest, beginning with Mráček, 12:06, 11:04, 11:15, then...
Busch 10:24, 10:12, 9:41
Hudeček 11:23, 10:28, 10:46
Matoušek 11:25, 10:10, 10:45
Milstein 10:00, 9:48, 9:19
Nováková 11:26, 10:13, 10:28
Novotný 11:37, 10:38, 10:38
Oistrakh (David, 1950) 10:46, 10:28, 9:16
Peinemann 12:10, 10:38, 10:55
Příhoda (1943) 11:09, 11:52, 10:16
Příhoda (1956) 11:03, 10:58, 9:33
Suk (1961) 11:04, 10:33, 10:12
Suk (1978) 11:08, 10:26, 10:15
Zenatý 11:32, 10:26, 10:27
I adjust a few timings appropriately, because some cues begin the Adagio a minute or so early, at the start of the transition. It will be seen that Mráček gains support for his speeds only from Edith Peinemann, and even she is a little faster in the Finale.
Onyx’s release is recommendable on its own terms, as Mráček displays a likeable musical personality, and it has a big advantage in that it includes the Romantic Pieces. But you have only to hear the punchy, exciting way in which Jiří Bělohlávek and the Czech Philharmonic begin Hudeček’s account, to realise that Mráček and Judd do not tell the whole story. Presentation is adequate, although Jan Smaczny, whose name is spelt wrong, drops a slight clanger in his booklet note.