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CD Review

Antonín Dvořák

  • Symphony #1 in C minor "The Bells of Zlonice" (1865)
  • Symphony #2 in B Flat Major, Op. 4 (1865)
  • Symphony #3 in E Flat Major, Op. 10 (1874)
  • Symphony #4 in D minor, Op. 13 (1874)
  • Symphony #5 in F Major, Op. 76 (1875)
  • Symphony #6 in D Major, Op. 60 (1880)
  • Symphony #7 in D minor, Op. 70 (1885)
  • Symphony #8 in G Major, Op. 88 (1889)
  • Symphony #9 in E minor "From The New World", Op. 95 (1893)
  • Concerto for Piano in G Major, Op. 33 (1876)
  • Concerto for Violin in A minor, Op. 53 (1878)
  • Concerto for Cello in B minor, Op. 104 (1895)
Alisa Weilerstein, cello
Frank Peter Zimmermann, violin
Garrick Ohlsson, piano
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Jiří Bělohlávek
Decca Classics 4786757 6CDs
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Here's the first Dvořák cycle on Decca since the 1960s. Actually, Universal Music's branches have always been very lucky with these pieces. Along with the Decca set (Kertész, a favorite of thousands), Philips recorded with Rowicki, and DG with Kubelik. All three sets are tremendous, and all three come with overture couplings. These live performances give us all nine symphonies, and each of the composer's three concertos. All but the Weilerstein Cello Concerto are new to disc, and all of these performances easily could become your favorites. My only concern – and I want to get it out of the way right now – is that Jiří Bělohlávek has recorded these works with such frequency that it is fair to question his motivations. After all, between DVDs and CDs, the man has set down all three concertos at least twice, and most of the late works with these very forces. However, the quality here is unquestionable, and it is nice to see a major label give the Czech Philharmonic some time in the spotlight. So it really is up to you.

I've written on the late symphonies at length for Classical Net, but the early symphonies also stand as superlative symphonic achievements. Start with the Symphony #1, subtitled "The Bells of Zionice". Its imposing, tolling opening leads naturally into Dvořák's unique sound world. Jiří Bělohlávek uses swift tempos and dynamic contrast to personalize this early work in a way that is wholly convincing. It was smart to coupling this somewhat unknown work with the aforementioned Cello Concerto. I reviewed the concerto earlier this year; repeated hearings confirm my positive thoughts, while the soloist's opening bars still remain too mannered. But it really is a very beautiful performance.

And the whole set is beautiful performance after beautiful performance. The live acoustics cast an absolutely lovely sheen around the winds, but the whole orchestra distinguishes itself and proudly upholds a world-famous performance tradition in this music. Disc two again couples known with unknown; the Violin Concerto receives a fine performance that doesn't best Suk with this same orchestra, or more recently, Mutter on DG. The Symphony #2 makes a worthy disc-mate. On the third disc, the Symphony #3 shares space with the ugly duckling of the composer's concerto output. The Piano Concerto is always somewhat clunky and dour, even in the original scoring, as here. Ohlsson makes a strong case for it, though, and Bělohlávek is as committed to the piece as any conductor alive. The Symphony that precedes it simply sparkles with balletic grace. Moving forward with agility and purpose, I find this outclasses Kertész with the London Symphony, though all three cycles I mentioned earlier have excellent readings of the early works.

In the Symphonies #4 and #5, we move toward the greater works in the canon. The wind playing is simply astonishing; even on headphones, the Czech Philharmonic effortlessly marries polish with a firmly projected sense of drama. The brass playing is luminous and the orchestral voices are expertly handled. The Symphony #4 is a great work, full of tension and Dvořák's trademark tunes. In the Scherzo, Bělohlávek scores over Kubelik, whose Berlin Philharmonic players miss some of the music's rustic sounds at a measured tempo. He must yield to Kertész. The latter lacks the tonal luster of the Czechs or Berliners, but sounds more explosive and spontaneous. Nothing hampers the Finale, which is thrilling and crackles with excitement.

Bělohlávek recorded both the Symphonies #6 and #7 on Chandos with this very orchestra. The Sixth was regarded as very fine then, and still is now. The beauty of sound is remarkable, and while there have been some significant additions to this work's discography in the last few years, this is another excellent version. The live acoustics are superb. In the Seventh, there is even fiercer competition. The earlier version was regarded as being too gentle, too soft. This later reading doesn't suffer from that, at least not entirely. I find the first movement to be winning. As the piece progresses, I feel the tension dampens somewhat, culminating in a finale that is both lacking in edge and downplaying the music's more tragic qualities. Still, the conception is mostly gorgeous, and there are some truly thrilling moments.

Finally, we have the Symphonies #8 and #9. The conductor has always done the Eighth well. Realistically, all of the great cycles have had great readings of the piece, and on the major labels, only Colin Davis on Philips was ever less than special individually. This particular take is amazing, largely because of some simply breathtaking woodwind playing. I feel like the strings could be a bit more incisive, and the brass better projected in places. But those winds! Simply stunning. For his part, Bělohlávek conducts with equal parts vigor and grace. The climaxes are somewhat disappointing; they aren't bad, but the failure to push the brass forwardly in the mix renders them a little muted. Conversely, the finale is nothing short of excellent, save for a nasty cough that wasn't edited for some reason. Lastly, the famous "New World" proves wholly successful. The orchestral voices are better balanced here than in the Eighth, and the strings have the necessary snap when required. The conductor's vision might feel a little soft-edged in places, but also displays an impressive range of moods and colors. Nothing feels routine, and small details emerge anew without ever feeling forced. The famous Largo is ethereally lovely, not too slow, but gentle and tender. Bělohlávek really leans on his first-desk soloists, and why not? The final two movements cap this largely excellent project; superbly played, with great attention to detail.

There are so many fine recordings of this orchestra in this music on disc, vinyl and DVD that it can feel overwhelming, especially when conductors like Bělohlávek revisit the music time and time again. However, I believe this project to be totally justifiable, a testament to the Czech Philharmonic's special relationship to the composer, and the unique insights that the conductor brings. Taken individually, the early symphonies here are probably greater than the late ones, but the Seventh has improved over time, and the Eighth is played magnificently. Given the excellence of the concertos as a bonus, these six jam-packed disc merit your serious consideration.

Copyright © 2014, Brian Wigman

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