Symphonic Variations, Op.78
Symphony No.8 in G, Op.88
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Charles Mackerras
Recorded 24 April 1992 in the Royal Festival Hall, London
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: May 2011
CD No: LPO – 0055
Duration: 60 minutes
Long before its own label was a reality, the London Philharmonic Orchestra decided to digitally record the without-soloist elements of this Friday-evening Dvořák concert for its archive. (The other work was the Cello Concerto with Ofra Harnoy.) On the face of it a surprising move for there is no shortage of recordings of this symphony (if far fewer of the Variations) and, anyway, the LPO and Sir Charles Mackerras were already scheduled at EMI sessions following the concert to set-down these very works, which went as planned, the final results (as produced by Andrew Keener and engineered by Mike Hatch at Henry Wood Hall) appearing on an Eminence compact disc.
Still, the LPO had a vision, and on the night in question these performances proved to be quite outstanding. Dvořák’s Symphonic Variations – a gem of the repertoire if too-rarely encountered at a concert – is a work difficult to bring off given its compression and intricacy. Here Mackerras and the LPO have its measure, catching well the finely-judged balancing act of the capricious and organic nature of Dvořák’s exquisitely crafted, economic yet vertiginous invention, music of wit and warmth, the final section exhilarating to round-off a perceptive and expressive performance.
The symphony is even finer, electrifying! Mackerras, avoiding the pitfall of treating the opening bars as a slow introduction, conjures an account that from the off suggests we’re in for something special. We are! This is a traversal of pulsation, soulful lyricism, beguiling lilt and theatrical temperament studded with a welter of detail that, like a good book, one cannot put down and which drags you back for further auditions. The LPO is inspired, one of those concert performances in which everything comes off with a certainty and confidence that is in itself noteworthy and which here also gets to the very core of Dvořák’s music, not least its Slavonic fire (here including thrilling horn trills in the finale), the symphony concluding with a bravura coda.
Another reason for being enthusiastic about this release is the superb sound. Okay, a slightly wider dynamic range would be welcome at the fortissmo end, but the reproduction is very faithful to the clarity and immediacy of the (pre-refurbishment) Royal Festival Hall. Such explicit reproduction, not least of the superb timpani-playing (presumably Russell Jordan), is the sonic icing on the cake. However one-off the concert might have been as a date in the diary, this is some of the very finest Dvořák that Charles Mackerras left us. Unnamed in the LPO’s annotation, it would now be nice to know who the recording engineer was. Please come forward!