Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/José Serebrier
rec. Lighthouse, Poole Arts Centre, Poole, Dorset, UK, 2011-14
WARNER CLASSICS 2564 613201 [7 CDs: 515:15]
It comes as something of a surprise that the much-recorded Uruguayan maestro José Serebrier had until recently released only two Dvořák symphonies – nos. 8 and 9 with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra (ABC Classics). The current completed project was begun in 2011, and is recorded in the excellent acoustic of the Lighthouse in Poole.
I have always admired Serebrier as a conductor; he studies his scores deeply – we are told he researched extensively in order to correct perceived errors in the First Symphony – but then allows the music, on the whole, to speak freely without undue intervention. Orchestras find him clear, efficient and likeable, which, with a composer like Dvořák, makes an essential contribution to the feeling of the performances – you don’t want a stressed orchestra.
This is a field in which there is plentiful top-level competition. Neeme Järvi’s Chandos set with the SNO (now RSNO) is full of good things, but suffers from rather boomy recorded sound. On the other hand, I enjoyed some of the Supraphon recordings by Vladimir Válek and the Prague Radio SO, although the orchestra is not the equal of the Bournemouth SO. My own preference has always been for Istvan Kertesz’s wonderful Decca set with the LSO, mostly recorded in the 1970s. Some listeners will feel they simply must have a Czech conductor, in which case, the current front-runners are probably Jiří Bélohlŕvek on Decca or Libor Pešek on Virgin Classics – the latter however with a British orchestra, the Royal Liverpool PO.
So where does this set stand? Very high up the list. To begin with, it represents outstanding value, as you can find it for around Ł20, which for seven discs is very tempting. It is stuffed with good things; quite apart from all nine symphonies, we have eight Slavonic Dances, the lovely Legends, and much more besides.
I’ve already referred to Serebrier’s qualities: directness, but no lack of subtlety and detail where required. Here and there, I was somewhat taken aback by his tempi; the first movement of the D major Symphony (no.6 on CD 3) seemed to me to fluctuate in too self-conscious a manner, Serebrier perhaps feeling that there are two alternating tempi for the movement. This seems at odds with Dvořák’s score, where he simply marks that certain passages should move forward slightly quicker, then later return ‘a tempo’. Serebrier’s re-statement of the opening theme (track 5, 1:05) is extraordinarily laboured.
As an interpretative controversy, that is unusual, but perhaps worth highlighting for that very reason. He and his Bournemouth players give fine performances of the early symphonies, though one is inevitably aware of the composer’s struggles with musical form – or perhaps I should say ‘dimensions’, because both Symphonies no.1. and no.2 simply go on too long. Dvořák himself clearly realised this, as no.3 is suddenly much more compact, and in only three movements. Indeed, this – the Third Symphony - is one of the highlights of the set for me, being a work I hardly knew before. It is full of delights; the first movement is irresistibly flowing and melodious, while the second movement combines a Mendelssohnian main section (compare the Italian Symphony’s Andante con moto) with a Wagnerian central section, harp arpeggios to the fore. The rather trite finale, though, comes as a disappointment.
Disc 4 is the ‘transitional’ one, if you like. Symphony no.4 – which is placed after no.5 here, not sure why – seems a step back from no.3; all four movements rather overstay their welcome and overwork their material. Despite the stylish playing, the work is hard to warm to, while Symphony no.5 is the first to bring us the true mature Dvořák. It is tuneful and lively from the start, with its perky clarinet theme, and never struggles for inventiveness or incident. The Scherzando third movement is novel, glancing backward at the solemn theme of the slow movement – BSO cellos on fine form here – before bouncing off into the Allegro.
Disc 5 contains the greatest challenge for any Dvořák conductor, the great Seventh Symphony, in many ways the composer’s finest work. It draws out the best from both conductor and orchestra here, for this is a very powerful and wholly convincing reading. The first movement’s success can be judged by the momentum with which it moves towards that crucial final climax –one of the most thrilling in symphonic music. The poco adagio is beautifully done, passionate and dramatic, though the lovely horn solo suffers slightly from poor balance. The scherzo has an irresistible lilt to it, and the great viola lament at the end is darkly melancholy as it should be. The finale is also done superbly – though some listeners may be disappointed that Serebrier could not resist the re-scoring of the final bars, where, like many conductors, he adds the horns to the woodwinds’ rising phrase. Stirring, but not what the composer wrote. Taking liberties like this is a slippery slope; I blame Mahler. Nevertheless this is a reading of real distinction, which for me is the highlight of the whole set. The disc is completed by the pastoral overture In Nature’s Realm, plus a scintillating performance of the Scherzo Capriccioso.
Any Dvořák lover who doesn’t know the ten Legends of op.59 (CD 6) is in for a treat. They have the dimensions of the Slavonic Dances, in that only one is over five minutes long, yet are closer to some of the symphonic movements; the third movement of Symphony no.8 on this same disc, for example, could easily be a Legend. Listen to the wistful charm of no.5, the swiftly changing moods of no.7, or the summery gaiety of no.9 – this is delicious music, undemanding yet full of character, brought out to the full in these performances. The sense of the players’ sheer enjoyment comes over strongly.
I have some reservations about Serebrier’s account of Symphony no.8, which follows the Legends on this disc. No problems with the first movement; it begins at a leisurely, quite broad tempo but soon picks up when the dancing flute theme appears and then acquires a thrilling momentum which never flags. This is a fabulous movement – just ten minutes long though it feels much bigger – and here I have to confess that I cannot escape comparing performances of it with my personal ‘gold standard’ of George Szell’s great Amsterdam Concertgebouw recording from 1951. Every new recording should be approached on its own merits, and having one model reading in mind can actually hamper one’s judgement but I can’t help it in this case. I’m glad that Serebrier ticks every box and compares superbly. The modern digital recording is infinitely superior even to Decca’s often very fine engineering of that period.
Serebrier does do one very strange thing; at the end of the first movement, he ‘segues’ directly into the Adagio second movement without any break – a bit of a shock, not requested by the composer. I can’t see that anything is gained by doing this, I’m afraid.
The middle movements are beautifully done; but the finale is simply too slow. Serebrier’s speed for the cello theme that becomes the subject of the variations is getting on for half of that given by the composer — or twice as slow if you prefer it that way round. Metronome marks are merely a guide, an indication but there is no suggestion that Dvořák’s metronome was faulty — as is sometimes claimed for Beethoven. This is just too far from the composer’s expressed intentions to be convincing. So – a bit of a mixed blessing this reading.
Disc 7 begins with the noisy Slavonic Dance in C, op.46 no.1, never one of my favourites. That is followed by the New World Symphony, in a truly compelling performance. This symphony puts an orchestra and conductor on the spot; they’ve done it so many times, but, because of its huge popularity, the whole set would be jeopardised by a lacklustre version. It certainly doesn’t get that; the first movement achieves real grandeur, and again demonstrates one of Serebrier’s important qualities – the building of momentum throughout a large-scale movement. That was notable in the Seventh and Eighth symphonies, and it is very much in evidence here.
The main melody of the Largo benefits from a plaintive cor anglais solo – even if the conductor does make an annoying tenuto in the melody at the very end of each of its returns – an affectation that momentarily disturbs the natural flow of the music.
The Scherzo is exciting, with some superb woodwind ensemble playing in the subsidiary themes. The finale is propelled with tremendous vigour, and Serebrier doesn’t miss the threatening, even sinister aspects of this music; it forces you to reflect on what Dvořák’s impressions of the USA really were. The disc is completed with the delicious Czech Suite, as well as perhaps the loveliest of all the Slavonic Dances, op.72 no.2 in E minor.
The recordings are very fine, though the balance characteristics do shift somewhat from disc to disc which is fair enough given that the sessions were spread out over more than three years. The orchestral playing is of high international class. The strings are expressive, polished and powerful when required; the brass beautifully balanced and blended, yet able to sound forth dramatically; it is only in the woodwind that I had small reservations. Dvořák calls for highly characterised woodwind playing, reflecting the folk origins of his music. The Bournemouth woodwind are wonderful players, but are sometimes a little too polite and civilised. The first oboe, for example, is often reticent to a fault – though some of the solos for that instrument, for example the end of the poco adagio of the Seventh are sublime.
On the other hand, as a wood-wind choir, they leave nothing to be desired at all, and the ensemble and tuning are always impeccable.
Serebrier is a fine Dvořák conductor; yes, there are elements of his interpretations that I find irritating, or simply disagree with; but over the course of nine large-scale works, that is hardly surprising. The fact is that everything is done with such thorough commitment and musicality that it is easy to overlook small details in the context of the bigger picture. A fine set, which takes its place among the major contenders in the recordings of this most lovable composer’s music.
Symphonies 2, 3 and 6
Symphony 8 & Legends
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Complete Symphonies: Legends: Slavonic Dances
CD 1 [68:18]
Symphony no.1 in C minor op.3, ‘The Bells of Zlonice’ [56:17]
Slavonic Dance op.72 no.4 in D flat major [5:13]
Slavonic Dance op.73 no.8 in A flat major [6:47]
CD 2 [65:23]
Slavonic Dance op.46 no.3 in A flat major [5:08]
Slavonic Dance op.72 no.7 in C major [3:38]
Slavonic Dance op.46 no.6 in D major [5:23]
Symphony no.2 in B flat major, op.4 [51:13]
CD 3 [80:00]
Symphony no.3 in E flat major, op.10 [34:10]
Symphony no.6 in D major, op.60 [45:46]
CD 4 [77:22]
Symphony no.5 in F major, op.76 [39:42]
Symphony no.4 in D minor, op.13 [37:38]
CD 5 [72:08]
Slavonic Dance op.46, no.8 in G minor [4:35]
Symphony no.7 in D minor, op.70 [36:45]
Concert Overture ‘In Nature’s Realm’, op.91 [14:59]
Scherzo Capriccioso, op.66 [15:34]
CD 6 [76:42]
No.1 in D minor [3:28]
No.2 in G major [4:18]
No.3 in G minor [4:02]
No.4 in C major [5:31]
No.6 in C# minor [4:49]
No.7 in A major [2:45]
No.8 in F major [3:48]
No.9 in D major [2:51]
No.10 in Bb minor [4:02]
Symphony no.8 in G major, op.88 [36:41]
CD 7 [75:22]
Slavonic Dance op.46 no.1 in C major [4:00]
Symphony no.9 in E minor, op 95, ‘From the New World’ [42:28]
Czech Suite, op.39 [23:07]
Slavonic Dance op.72 no.2 in E minor [5:45]