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CD: Crotchet

Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Symphony No. 3 in E-flat, Op. 10 (1873) [32:36]
Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Op. 70 (1884-5) [34:41]
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Zdeněk Mácal
rec. Dvořák Hall, Rudolfinum, Prague, August-September 2004
EXTON OVCL-00280 [67:24]
Experience Classicsonline

Zdeněk Mácal has been one of my favorite conductors since New Year's Day, 1976, when I heard him coax the normally indifferent New York Philharmonic of the late Boulez era into involved performances of late-Romantic blockbusters. I didn't get to see him again until 2003 - twenty-seven years later! - when his New Jersey Symphony account of Beethoven's Ninth evinced a similarly natural-sounding feel for shaping and tempo, along with a similar refusal, even in standard repertoire, to take things for granted.
The present brace of Dvořák symphonies, too, gives the impression of fresh thinking. The D minor symphony can be problematic: its heavy scoring and busy textures tempt conductors into bombast and melodrama. Mácal avoids these problems, taking a sort of neo-Toscaninian approach to the music that emphasizes its tensile line. In the first movement, he doesn't punch up the brass punctuations, nor does he linger over the brief pastoral episode at 1:19; keeping the bigger picture in mind, he integrates these details into larger musical arcs, thus reserving full impact for the main theme's tutti statement at 1:43. The well-organized development maintains the overall tension - even in the quieter passages: the flute solo at 4:51 sounds haunted - building up inexorably to the resounding arrival of the recapitulation (6:10). The coda winds down with impeccable control -- the little 'cello interjections, which the composer displaces by a beat here and there, sound utterly right as the music's energy spends itself.
Similarly, the conductor shapes the Poco adagio patiently, in a single broad arc, so that the brassy climaxes - Dvořák uses the brass more liberally in his slow movements than you might expect - feel logical and inevitable. Some will want more repose in the closing chords, but they fit in with the conductor's approach to the rest of the movement, rounding it off nicely.
In the Scherzo, the main theme retains its customary graceful lilt, but here the segmented "tail" section and the little string decorations on the repetitions provoke a mild unease. Mácal departs from convention at the Trio, strictly maintaining the tempo, and the taut line, where others relax more generously. But it doesn't quite work: the flute soloist doesn't have time to make sense of the two-against-three business, and the textures otherwise sound unsorted, if not quite unkempt. No complaints about the finale, however: less episodic than some, affectionate but not indulgent in the folk-like second theme, its climaxes erupt with an almost Beethovenish volatility.
It doesn't hurt to have the Czech Philharmonic on board: their "traditional," affectionate phrasing provides a firm grounding for Mácal's insights - you might consider this the best of both worlds. Some listeners will find the dynamic scheme a bit relentlessly extroverted: there's room for greater light and shade in the clarinet solos and duets, for example, but there's no denying their eloquence.
The three-movement E-flat symphony - one of the four whose discovery precipitated the renumbering of all Dvořák's symphonies in the mid-twentieth century - has its special moments, particularly in the central Adagio molto, where Mácal taps into a previously unsuspected epic vein: it becomes the dramatic heart of the symphony. In the more lightly scored passages, the airy textures are appealing, and the conductor shapes and rounds off cadential phrases with a lovely plasticity. At the central Tempo di marcia - which usually goes just slightly faster - Mácal steps up the pace significantly, to stirring effect. The vigorous downward string unison at 9:12, with its irregular scansion, is again in perfect control; the cellos at 12:09 sing vibrantly, but with a hint of desolation, ushering in an abbreviated version of the main subject to round off the movement.
The outer movements don't reach that level. The first movement has an appealing buoyancy and sweep here, but it sounds unvaried in both volume and texture. Not only is this aurally fatiguing, but it undercuts what should be great moments: the unexpected tutti recap of the second subject, especially, goes for naught by lack of contrast. The triumphal finale is not one of Dvořák's subtler conceptions. The twinkling main theme, spankingly played, here sounds rather earnest, but otherwise Mácal's reading is sprightly.
Exton's engineers incorporates some of the Rudolfinum's ambience into the recorded sound - as many of Supraphon's own productions haven't - nicely complementing the Czech orchestra's lean, tapered sonorities. Several splices could have been better concealed, but only that at 12:14 in the E-flat's Adagio molto is distracting.
Despite my reservations, a flawed performance from a conductor like Mácal offers more substance than a journeyman interpreter's success. That Trio notwithstanding, this Seventh goes on the short list for this difficult but rewarding work, just below Rowicki (also Philips), Kertész (Decca), Szell (Sony) and Colin Davis (Philips). Rowicki and Kertész, on their respective labels, offer more consistent realizations of the Third, but neither of them approaches Mácal's uniquely moving Adagio molto.
Stephen Francis Vasta


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