Dvořák Symphonies 5 & 6

0 of 5 stars

Symphony No.5 in F, Op.76
Symphony No.6 in D, Op.60
Scherzo capriccioso, Op.66
The Hero’s Song, Op.111

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jiří Bělohlávek

Symphony No.6 recorded in the Royal Festival Hall, London, on 21 May 1999; other works recorded 21-25 March 2006 in Studio No.1, Maida Vale, London

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: February 2007
2564 63235-2 (2 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours

Dvořák is of course a regular presence in concert halls and ‘on record’, but it’s usually the same pieces! Wonderful though they are, it’s good to find space being given to the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies: both are masterpieces.

The first of these CDs (Symphony No.5, Scherzo capriccioso, and The Hero’s Song), 78 minutes in length, was recorded in March 2006 in the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s Maida Vale home between the announcement that Jiří Bělohlávek would be the next Chief Conductor of this orchestra and his actual taking up of the appointment (in September of that year).

Bělohlávek’s scrupulous unfolding of the F major work reveals so much that is wonderful about it: whether pastoral, bucolic, heartfelt, dancing or dramatic. Sure of its purpose and beguiling in detail, Bělohlávek speaks Dvořák’s language innately and has secured a performance that is vital and refined. Add to this quite superb sound-quality – Studio No.1 allowed to be its immediate and uncoloured self – and you have a winning and persuasive account of music that really should be played more often.

Scherzo capriccioso is given a deft account, one that melts to the soulful ‘trio’, here not indulged but given with due pathos, Bělohlávek observing the important repeat that is a timely delay to ‘Slavonic Dance’ exuberance. The Hero’s Song is amongst Dvořák’s rarest works (it was also his last orchestral piece). Mahler, no less, conducted the first performance, in Vienna in December 1898). Lasting around 20 minutes, The Hero’s Song shows no falling away of the composer’s invention; suggestive and fantastical, it may not have immediate appeal (in the way that Dvořák’s most popular works undoubtedly do) but it is a fascinating piece centred on a ‘hero’ and nationalism while also being universal, there being no specific programme. In his booklet note, Patrick Lambert reveals that Mahler was “thrilled” by Dvořák’s work. Certainly it is music that reveals secrets over several listens, and this account of it is one to return to.

The Sixth Symphony was recorded at a London concert in 1999 and was once available as the cover disc on “BBC Music Magazine”. It’s good to have this performance more permanently available, and it sounds good, too, a smidgen of reverb added – as habitués of the (old) Royal Festival Hall will no doubt agree.

Finding a tad more fire and spontaneity than in the studio versions on the first CD, this with-audience account of the Sixth delves beyond the ‘song and dance’ aspects and confirms the individuality of Dvořák’s glorious writing. Bělohlávek passes over the repeat of the first movement’s exposition (he doesn’t in the Fifth) and leads a taut but pliable reading that satisfies Dvořák’s very particular expression as well as its direction. The scherzo is especially exuberant and the finale has vigour right through to the triumphant closing bars.

A handsome collection, then, devoted to a composer that doesn’t need to be better known – but some of his creations do!

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