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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Symphonic Variations, Op. 78 (1877) [22:32]
Serenade for Strings in E, Op. 22 (1875) [27:01]
London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Colin Davis
rec. 1968, Wembley Town Hall, UK ELOQUENCE 482 9380 [49:42]
What a pleasure to revisit a recording from my early explorations of classical music. The original Philips LP issue of this was one of my first Dvořák recordings. After some years, I swapped out my worn copy for other performances, but I remember spending numerous listening sessions, as a teenager, enfolded in these lovely sounds. The CD booklet includes a photo of the original cover art, which induced further nostalgia.
Sometimes, the bloom stays on the rose: the Serenade for Strings is as wonderful as I remembered. Davis - not yet "Sir Colin," despite Eloquence's billing - uses a full string body, yet he adopts a lighter manner and maintains a lighter sonority than do some smaller-scaled purveyors. The first movement unfolds with an artless simplicity that conceals all manner of flexibility and nuance; the Larghetto is wistful, not weighted. The conductor pays plenty of attention to rhythmic crispness, as well. In the graceful waltz, the off-beat punctuations scan easily and precisely; the Scherzo goes with energy and point; the dotted figures infuse the Finale with a bounding energy. A couple of smudges that escaped my notice before - the first rushing phrase in the waltz is scrambled, and one landing in the Larghetto is blunted - are immaterial amid the beautiful playing and phrasing. And it is nice to hear the Serenade unhitched from its reflexive disc-mate, the Tchaikovsky Serenade.
Sometimes, the bloom fades a bit. There's nothing wrong with Davis's performance of the Symphonic Variations, except, perhaps, the score itself. I'd not previously registered how short - and short-winded - the theme is, and most of the twenty-seven variations come to feel that way as well. Still, Davis offers much to admire. He's good at teasing the theme out of the texture, no matter where it's buried, and he has a good ear for Dvořák's timbral blends. Clear, if short-lived, pleasures include the buoyant, cushiony strings at 4:22; the controlled rambunctiousness at 8:34; and the gracious waltz at 10:54, all in track 2.
The sound is fine; clean, but warm enough, like a slightly tweaked version of the Philips LP. The tracks are oddly allotted in the Variations: the theme gets the first brief track, track 2 gets the twenty-seven variations, and the Finale gets track 3. The Serenade, as expected, gets one track per movement. And no, that is not a typo in the headnote. Dvořák composed the Variations in 1877 as Opus 38, but the score wasn't published until 1888, when Simrock "contributed to the general mix-up of Dvořák opus numbers by calling it Op[us] 78" - that last from Conrad Wilson's program note. Stephen Francis Vasta