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Symphonies - No. 6 in D, No.8 in G
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Myung-Whun Chung
DG 469 046-2 [76'25", not 76'52" as stated on cover]
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While I'm delighted that Dvorak's magnificent Sixth Symphony has a high-profile release, I'm sorry not to be able to welcome this CD more enthusiastically. I recall that Chung's previous Dvorak (Symphonies 3 & 7/VPO - DG 449 207-2) left me somewhat cold. This latest release finds me admiring but not involved - and I love this music.

Let's go back a step. In the planning stage, I imagine that someone would have questioned if both 6 and 8 - a unique coupling - could be fitted on to one CD. The Sixth, at an average of 42 minutes (without the controversial first-movement repeat) and, say, 37 for No.8 runs CD playing times close. Chung doesn't take the repeat that Dvorak crossed through, but that hasn't stop Kertesz or Rowicki (or, indeed, Sir Charles Groves on his fine LP recording - ASD 3169 - which EMI should consider for CD transfer) from observing it. With these guys we're running now to 50 minutes and a single CD of 6 & 8 goes out of the window.

My unequivocal first choice for No.6 is Kubelik whose Berlin Philharmonic recording has a glow, lilt and expressiveness all its own. Dvorak's individuality shines through. Kubelik's 45-minute No.6 (no repeat) and his quite nippy 8 total 81 minutes (CDs of this length are quite possible today). But that's known material - Chung was starting from scratch. There is something matter-of-fact about Chung's conducting, the music regimented (his descent into the first movement's development is literal and unimaginative: Groves is wonderful here). The only real claim of Chung's No.6 is his very fast speed for the Scherzo, a Furiant. The VPO toss this off with alacrity and it's exciting (not a word I use often: I prefer to be thrilled) to hear a world-class orchestra retaining its composure while articulating at speed. However, repeated listening now suggests Chung is superficial, the novelty of his approach has diminished (and I would have liked more repose in the Trio).

Kubelik's great recording is only available as part of a box (and not coupled with No.8). But it's one of DG's Collectors Editions that are very reasonably priced. Kubelik is somewhat circumspect with the early works, but his set has much to recommend it (DG 463 158-2, 6CDs). There's also excellent LSO cycles with Kertesz (Decca) and Rowicki (Philips). As I've mentioned, both conductors observe the 6th's repeat and these cycles are available cheaply. I would give the nod to Rowicki. Otmar Suitner's beguiling Berlin Staatskapelle recordings (Berlin Classics) contain marvellous things. His Sixth is excellent, full of the idiomatic ingredients that give Dvorak his personality; and his orchestra has a delightfully rustic-sounding woodwind section. I wouldn't want to be without either Karel Sejna or Karel Ancerl in their Czech Philharmonic versions (1951, 1966 respectively - both Supraphon) who speak Dvorak's language like the natives they are. None of these conductors attempt Chung's speed for the Furiant: in the long term their discretion will be welcome.

Chung is afforded recording quality which compromises Dvorak's scoring. In lightly scored passages details reach the ear gratefully but in tuttis the orchestral perspective recedes (in reality excessive reverberation swallows inner voices).

Chung's Eighth passes me by. I'm not convinced by his mannered way with the cello tune in the first movement (from 2'17") and his overblown account of the development borders on the crude. Turn to Harnoncourt (Teldec 3984-24487-2) for something more explicitly detailed (helped by a recording that doesn't blunt edges): Harnoncourt offers bar-by-bar aural revelations and the music has the warm inner glow and spontaneous expression that Chung has wrung out.

There's no doubt the VPO play superbly and that the recording presents a beautiful and powerful sound. Other conductors though get closer to Dvorak's spirit, their accounts are more involving and satisfying, aided by recording quality that allows Dvorak's instrumental ingredients to register cleanly.

Colin Anderson


Colin Anderson

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