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CD Review

Antonín Dvořák

LPO 55
  • Symphonic Variations, Op. 78
  • Symphony #8 in G Major, Op. 88
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Charles Mackerras
London Philharmonic LPO-0055 60:21
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Sir Charles Mackerras simply owned this music. Never as flashy or heavily promoted as some of his colleagues, he was well-traveled as any maestro. His commitment to Czech music constitutes a huge part of his legacy, but I haven't yet heard a Mackerras recording that wasn't compelling in some way. As I wrote in my review of his live Seventh and Eighth on Signum last year, the remarkable consistency of results is what has always impressed me most about this underrated artist. Regardless of orchestra, regardless of his later battle with cancer, he was almost always musically intelligent and worth hearing.

The performances on this disc come from 1992, when the London Philharmonic Orchestra was not at an artistic high point. Franz Welser-Möst was just two years into his tenure, but proved so unpopular that some critics considered him "Frankly Worst Than Most". Many feel that the orchestra played best for Klaus Tennstedt, who was by this point often ill and insecure about conducting. You'll find that I have reviewed several of his live performances captured on LPO for this site, including many for this recent update. The orchestra of 1992 is heard to be an eager, if unpolished band, and Tennstedt was often unable to translate his generosity of spirit into top-quality results. Sometimes he could – my God, his live Mahler! – but usually it was up to guests to try and draw at the box office.

Mackerras tries extremely hard. He clearly has great ideas about how both of these pieces should go, but again, that doesn't necessarily translate into greatness. The Symphonic Variations should be terrific, but some coarse brass playing, coupled with something that sounds suspiciously like orchestral indifference means that the final product is less than it should be. The Symphony has similar problems. The brass do not integrate themselves well into the overall texture, and some of the woodwind playing is frankly bad. Worse yet, nobody seems like they are having a good time. The big moments in the first movement have an angst-ridden fury that seem out of place For his part, Mackerras simply glosses over details that he would later appreciate with other orchestras. There are some lovely moments, mind you, but the joy and sparkle that this music needs is conspicuously absent. I love this label, and I welcome any tribute to this late conducting genius. But this was obviously an off day for everyone, and should not have been released.

Copyright © 2015, Brian Wigman