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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Symphony No. 9 in E minor, op.95 From the New World (1893) [40:49]
Jan NOVÁK (1921-1984)
Philharmonic Dances (1957) [18:13]
Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934)
Prelude “Irmelin” (1892); La Calinda (from “Koanga”) (1904) [9:23]
Brno Philharmonic Orchestra/Jiří Waldhans
rec. live, 22 October 1966, Royal Festival Hall, London

A catalogue limited to just fifteen discs might seem suspiciously sparse, but for several significant reasons these Orchestral Concert CDs more than make up for their blushingly modest numbers. Firstly, they represent a historical “snapshot”, of a particular period in the 1960s and 1970s when Eastern European performers, hitherto relatively little known in the “West”, increasingly became a singularly significant feature in UK concert halls. Secondly, these are all “live” recordings, but not as we understand the term these days (i.e. musical patchwork quilts). Granted, that means a few – but surprisingly few – fluffs and those inevitable contributions from the audience, but these are all-but-submerged by the electrifying frisson of actual performances caught on the wing.

Thirdly, and perhaps most significantly, the recordings themselves are an intriguing slice of recording history. It’s well enough known that Robert Fine (with all due respect for his astonishing achievements with “Living Presence”) originally intended to record stereo using just two microphones. However, his experiments failed, and he had to make do with that “fabulous three”. It’s rather less well-known that where Robert Fine failed, Geoffrey Terry succeeded – and these recordings are the, I might say “triumphant”, proof of his pudding. OK, this may not sound like any Big Deal, but it’s actually a far, far bigger deal than it sounds. For the whole story, have a read of An Unsung Hero of Minimalist Miking.

If I’m totting it up right, that makes two reasons to regard these as “historical recordings”. There is a difference, though – the performances on these recordings are not peeking monophonically at you, through layers of clicks, pops, murky mush and sizzling sausages (whether or not partially relieved by modern “wash ‘n’ brush-up” techniques), but basking in the sumptuous glow of some truly outstanding hi-fi stereo.

To be frank, production values are not of the very first rank – there are some switching clicks (though, obviously, not during the music), some slightly bumpy rides between movements, and occasional awkward fades. However, considering that they were recorded and produced, literally on a shoestring, by a team of just one (i.e. Geoffrey Terry), flying by the seat of his pants with what we’d now consider to be little short of antediluvian facilities, they nevertheless represent a superb achievement.

The series begins with this disc of Dvořák, Novák and Delius, played by the Brno Philharmonic under Jiří Waldhans. It’s a classic case of a visiting orchestra offering an international handshake by mingling some music of their host in a programme of their own country’s music. The disc is laid out in the order listed above; is anyone prepared to bet that this was the concert order?

Anyone who reacts apoplectically to the omission of the first movement exposition repeat of Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony would be well advised to stop reading this right now. Waldhans’s overall tempo sits centrally between the slower Kertesz and the faster Barbirolli. Hence, we could say that Waldhans’s performance is eminently alert, but by no means rushed off its feet. Overall, I can’t say it’s the greatest performance of this work – but then, in a field so crowded, it’d be a brave man that tried plucking “the” best out of the bag, wouldn’t it? Nevertheless, it’s very hard to find any real fault with it, given the numerous unfamiliar but felicitous details that elevate the eyebrows, and a logical flow that sweeps you pleasurably along from start to finish.

I say “sweeps” rather in the sense of “carries” than “forces”. Waldhans has chosen his tempi astutely. It feels as though all the tempi are “derived” from the opening movement’s allegro. So naturally do the movements follow one another that, even if you happen to disagree with that allegro (which I doubt), once it’s sunk in you find yourself unable to object to any of the others. This is probably what prompted my colleague Jonathan Woolf to describe it, rather neatly, as “a perfectly rectitudinous achievement” (see review).

After a wonderfully hushed and expectant introduction, the first movement fizzes along a real treat. Like so many others – other than Barbirolli who (I’m told) strictly observes the absence of marked tempo changes – Waldhans eases back for the second subject. Yet, even here, there’s that broad sense of a tempo “relationship”, supplemented by a delectable lilt when the strings take the lead.

It thus comes as no surprise that the Largo flows with a more “singing” tempo than seems to be the norm. Yet, it lacks nothing in the “soul” – or, indeed, the “dance” – department; there is plenty of delicious delicacy and, near the end, the choked hesitancy of the strings is positively heart-breaking. The propulsive Scherzo is bright, bouncy, and bristling with telling details, all keenly articulated and accented.

Waldhans makes a thrusting start to the finale, yet the emergent, rollicking dance sounds a bit “stiff” – surprisingly so, since up to this point Waldhans and his players seem to have winkled out every trace of dance and sprinkled it with sparkle. However, it is but a brief aberration; from this point on it’s “sweeping” with a vengeance. All the diverse episodes, from mere whispers to thundering climaxes, are eloquently characterised, and the feeling of a tempo pattern persists throughout – an impression roundly reinforced by the dearth of awkward gear-changes, though not, I’m happy to report, of subtle nudges. The solo clarinet is pleasingly attended, there’s some tasty bassoon-work, and the first horn nails his top note to hair-raising effect (if he’d fluffed that, I doubt that this recording would ever have seen the light of day).

And what of the coda? In no other recording have I heard so much orchestra (rather than just brass) contributing to Dvořák’s grindingly dissonant “collision of the New World with the Old”; this is singularly impressive. In fact, the entire Brno Philharmonic sounds singularly impressive, not just here but all the way through. The glowing strings are splendidly unanimous and rich (these, let’s not forget, were the halcyon days when orchestras fielded eight double-basses as “standard”), the horns ring out clear and bold, the brass pack a healthy but not too bruising punch, and the agile woodwind brim with character – I just love the distinctive quality of these oboes and bassoons. To say that they sound reedy is nowadays generally a deprecatory comment, but not in my book – in fact, I much prefer this good, honest reedy character, redolent of our pastoral past, to today’s “regulation” smooth and sanitised sound.

So, the greatest this Dvořák Ninth might not be, but if I had it for company on a desert island, I think I’d rest quite content with it.

Here is one place that a fastidious reviewer would give credit (or debit) to the recording engineers. I’ve read reviews of discs in this series, complimenting the engineer(s) for such as astute microphone placement, good balance between soloist and orchestra, or bringing certain important details to the fore. However, as Geoffrey Terry himself would tell you, in no uncertain terms, it had nothing whatsoever to do with him.

He had figured out where the two microphones needed to be, in order to capture as nearly as possible the sound balance and dynamics created by the conductor, and he used that setup for all his recordings – since, by definition, any other setup would fall short of the required mark. Hence, you can hear all those lovely details because Waldhans asked for them and the Brno Philharmonic delivered the goods, and GT’s microphones simply “listened” to the result.

Now, what about Novák’s Philharmonic Dances? These were commissioned by the Brno Philharmonic in 1957, and this is the first recording. Oddly enough, considering what a bracing breath of fresh air they are, as far as I can ascertain they’ve been recorded only once more, as recently as August 2017, by the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Tomáš Netopil (Supraphon SU42202). I haven’t heard this one, but, if the impression made on me by Waldhans’s performance is anything to go by, Netopil will have his work cut out to compete with, never mind surpass it.

It’s not exactly what you’d call a tuneful piece, operating more on “Bartókian” lines, weaving variants of relatively short cells into pleasing patterns, spiced by strong rhythms and brilliantly kaleidoscopic orchestration (ten years later, it would surely have been described as “psychedelic”). However, it’s nowhere near unremittingly discordant, preferring to alarm the fabled “blue-rinse set” with gaudy splashes of good-natured rowdiness – and then charm them with the occasional piquant confection. It’s the Twentieth Century equivalent of the likes of the Fęte Polonaise or Scherzo Capriccioso.

Proceedings are opened by a startlingly realistic snare drum, an instrument which features so often that you end up regarding it as an obbligato soloist (and why not? It makes such a cute noise). The drum’s jaunty rattle sets the tone, of a rollicking dance spreading giddy good humour as it goes along – come to think of it, rarely has the marking allegro been more aptly applied. Particularly ear-catching, near the end of the movement, are the “whirring” horns, vaguely (but only vaguely, mind) reminiscent of Janáček’s in the middle movement of his Sinfonietta.

The central Moderato comes closer to having a tune, disarmingly announced on cellos, but even this is worked out on those “Bartókian” lines, and some of those kinky asymmetrical metres, so beloved of Bernstein, put in entirely apposite appearances. Also catapulted into motion by the snare drum, the vivace finale resumes the first movement’s quirky, motivic bustle. The “whirring” horns and asymmetrical metres provoke the brass into injecting a distinctly jazzy pulse (as the lady said, “There’s no sensation like syncopation”). Toss in some tasty impressionistic effects, ever-shifting colours, a curious but cute fugue, and a jubilantly swinging conclusive pageant, and you are (well, I certainly was) left wondering why this music has been in hiding for so many years.

The players seem to relish every minute, and well they might, for the music – coming dangerously close to being a fully-fledged Concerto for Orchestra – is certainly infectious (or even habit-forming; this review is taking me ages to write, because I keep finding “good reasons” to listen to it just once more!). Waldhans again has a good grip on the tempi. He seems well aware that, like allegro, vivace is not actually a tempo marking, but an indication of mood. Although the outer movements are quicker than the leisurely moderato, neither of them is fast, but then I wouldn’t want them to be – in my mind I tried “replaying” some samples at faster paces, and found that they do seem rushed. But the moods – ah! these he nails good and proper, with what I would consider penetrative judgement of pacing, dynamics and expressive nuances. And he certainly fires up his orchestra, although I’ll avoid giving any specific credits, as the list would go on and on. Enough said?

Whilst they do not put the likes of Beecham and Barbirolli in the shade, Waldhans and his Merry Men play the two Delius pieces with warmth and evident affection. Taken, so to speak, on the andante side of adagio, the lyric quality of the Prelude to Irmelin blossoms, with some rapturously silken string-playing and delicately perfumed wind solos. Whilst hardly a match for Beecham’s Florida Suite incarnation, Waldhans nevertheless paints an attractive La Calinda that would bring a smile to anyone’s face. The only place that he trips up is at the point where Beecham conjures one of his inimitable swaggers. At the lead-in, Waldhans is a tad too heavy on the brake-pedal, and thereby seems to sacrifice the requisite “lift”. But by no stretch of the imagination is this disastrous; it’s merely a blip – and there is so much to enjoy, including some tingling percussion, a serene solo horn, and an overall bewitching sound.

Those last two words bring us more or less full circle, for “bewitching sound” is at the heart of this and the other Orchestral Concert CDs. It is only fair to advise you that, to alleviate tape hiss, some mild noise reduction has been applied to extended quiet passages. Listeners with sharper senses might just notice some of the “boundaries” – but I myself find them of no real consequence. The “sound stage” might be just a wee bit too wide for headphone listeners, but the sonic vista spread before you is quite without parallel – unless, that is, you’re in the centre seat of the front row of a concert hall balcony.

It prompts what seems to me (but apparently not to a fair few others) to be an obvious question: why record an orchestra using 30 or more microphones, with the vast amount of attendant expense, complexity, manpower, fuss and palaver (et cetera!), when you can achieve far more impressively and richly realistic results with just two good microphones and (nowadays) a laptop computer? It’s no contest, really, is it?

Paul Serotsky

Previous review: Jonathan Woolf

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