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Josef SUK (1874-1935)
Sokol March, Op. 35c (1919-20) [6:04]
Serenade for Strings in E-flat, Op. 6 (1892) [28:07]
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Symphony No. 6 in D, Op. 60 (1880) [44:24]
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Václav Talich
rec. EMI Abbey Road Studio No. 1, November 1938
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.112050 [78:35]

That a conductor is considered historically important does not automatically render all his recordings equally deserving of immortality: even the discographies of Toscanini and Furtwängler document a number of their respective off days. So, too, with Václav Talich: he's rightly invoked, among Czechs, as one of the twentieth century's greats -- it is he who trained Charles Mackerras, among others, in the Czech style and traditions -- but the recordings on this disc, made in London during a Czech Philharmonic tour, leave a distinctly mixed impression.

Of the two composers represented here, it's Josef Suk who comes off better. Granted, his Sokol March, placed first on the disc, is hardly a major interpretive test: it's hearty, incorporating some quirky harmonic turns, and Talich projects it well. The Serenade, however, is not so easy a piece, and here it is nicely turned. The opening, with the players "singing through" the quarter-notes, feels slightly deliberate, its mien at once affectionate and severe. The waltzlike second movement is grazioso in both senses of the term: graceful and gracious, moving seamlessly into the Trio. The slow movement's concentrated textures open out nicely into the contrasting theme at 3:59; duetting violin trills inject a Bohemian pastoral note into the coda. The players bounce through the finale, an energetic moto perpetuo, with relish. The relaxation into the episode 4:23 is deftly accomplished, though the ensuing return to tempo is a bit stiff.

Parts of the Dvořák symphony, however, may raise an eyebrow. Talich begins in a leisurely manner, phrasing the theme expansively, swelling into the melodic peaks; but the melodic elements and the accompanying syncopations have trouble staying lined up. Once past this start - reflecting, perhaps, a different order of musical priorities from today's - there's plenty to savour: the tender transitional phrases at 1:48; the graceful yet full-bodied rendering of the second theme; the delicacy of the lighter textures; and the mystery and unease in the development.

The Adagio's broad opening theme unfolds spaciously, and the divided strings intone its return at 4:37 with real warmth. Unfortunately, the sonorities thicken and ooze as they expand - rendering the minor-key episode, for example, soggy rather than ominous - and wind attacks are frequently uncertain. In the Scherzo, Talich shrewdly leans on and separates the two-note figures, producing both weight and propulsion; the high violins sing serenely in the Trio, and its minore episode is mournful. The conductor can't make the finale's first theme any less square, but at least he keeps it flowing, and the woodwinds point the second theme delightfully. There are a few awkward moments, and a scrambled attack or two, on the way to the celebratory coda.

Mark Obert-Thorn's restorations get eminently listenable results from the venerable source materials; I don't imagine anyone curious about this recording would be deterred by the mild background hiss. The brass in the Suk march suffers some breakup, though the basic sound is clear enough. In the symphony, the violins sound dry at peak moments, and some of the climaxes harden rather than expand. The serenade, involving just strings, comes off best, though it, too, has its dry- and hard-sounding moments.

These performances would be worth downloading to study their performance style. As a permanent library acquisition, however, you'll want something more modern. From the analogue-stereo era, I'd favour Rowicki (Philips) or Ančerl (Supraphon) in the symphony - good luck tracking down either of them - and Münchinger's unexpectedly glowing account of the serenade (Decca Eloquence). I see the march boasts several modern Supraphon performances, available on discs or, on Amazon, as inexpensive downloads.

Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.

Previous reviews: Jonathan Woolf and Brian Reinhart


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