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AntonŪn DVORŃK (1841-1904)
Symphonies 7-9
Symphony no.9 in E minor "From the New World", op.95 (1893)
Symphony no.7 in D minor op.70 (1885)
Romance in F minor for violin and orchestra, op.11 (1877)
Symphony no.8 in G, op.88 (1890)
Symphonic Variations, op.78 (1877)
Stephanie Gonley (violin)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Charles Mackerras
English Chamber Orchestra/Charles Mackerras
Recorded in St.Augustineís, Kilburn, 21st-23rd May 1991, Henry Wood Hall (Symphonies 7 and 9), Southwark, 20th-21st May, 1994 (Romance), and 26th, 27th and 29th April 1992 (Symphony 8 and Variations)
[CD1 [79:28] CD2 [70:26]]

Sir Charles Mackerras knows his Czech music; he was responsible in large measure for bringing awareness in this country of the wonders of JanŠčekís operas, and, in these fine recordings, has brought the same flare and imagination to these well-known and popular works by DvořŠk. In many ways, Mackerrasís approach is, not surprisingly, similar to that he displayed in his recently completed set of the Beethoven symphonies. He does everything he can to let the music speak for itself with the minimum interpretative intervention. Yet he relies on his musical instincts too, and moulds the music in a personal and mostly very convincing way.

Excellent thought the results were from the RLPO in the Beethoven series, he here has an orchestra, the London Philharmonic, with a more integrated sound, richer strings, better internal balance. The playing is in fact quite outstanding throughout the two CD set, and the recordings have captured it faithfully.

Mackerrasís recordings of the seventh and eighth symphonies were new to me, but this New World has long been one of my personal favourites. Itís very interesting to compare it with the disappointingly bland Previn/Los Angeles Symphony recording of this work which I reviewed a little while back. The differences are evident from the very beginning of the slow introduction. Mackerras, unlike Previn, achieves drama and maximum contrast, drawing out pauses to allow the music to breathe and emphasise the feeling of suspense and expectation. In the Allegro (though itís a great pity he doesnít make the repeat), all the details of scoring emerge cleanly, and the rhythmic drive is irresistible, leading to a really thrilling climax in the coda.

The famous Largo receives a particularly poetic performance, and the excellence of the playing as well as Mackerrasís meticulous attention to detail is shown in such things as the balance of the solemn trombone processional at (track 2)12:16, or the final extraordinary chord for four solo double-basses, as perfectly tuned and placed here as Iíve ever heard it.

Thereís no hint of anything routine about this performance, and the excitement continues unabated from the Scherzo, played with zest and energy, through to a really outstanding finale. How often this movement can sound rather tired and unsatisfactory! None of that here, for the music is, like the first movement, driven forward inexorably, until the ultimate agonised counterpoint of the main themes of first movement and finale achieves a monumental grandeur, surely what the composer wished for (but very rarely gets!). Along the way, Mackerras constantly allows us to relish details of the scoring, such as the little semiquaver groups in violas then ícellos around (track 4) 6:19, or the bassoon counter-melody at 8:09.

A riveting New World, then, which sets a very high standard. But do Mackerras and the LPO manage to maintain it? Itís my opinion that they do. The 7th Symphony, arguably the composerís finest masterpiece, is given a convincing performance. It is hard-driven, with the accent strongly on its elements of drama and tragedy. Consequently, the more song-like sections seem momentary relief rather than an inherent part of the argument. Even in the slow movement, Mackerras underlines the turbulence that unsettles many parts of this lyrical outpouring. This is not to say that the playing is not beautiful, or that the music is less than lovingly phrased. But the conductor always keeps things on the move, surging forward to the ultimate resolution in the tierce de Picardie of the final bars of the finale. This is a powerful and stirring reading of a very great work.

If Mackerras isnít so totally convincing in the 8th Symphony, itís probably because of the nature of the piece. Compared to the Seventh, with its spiritual torments, this is far more straightforward, full of open air and sunshine. So here and there, I feel that Mackerras presses the music too hard, risking a certain blatancy, and missing some of the poetry. He also exaggerates and distorts sometimes, introducing, for example, an annoying and unnecessary crescendo through the final chords of the first movement, a grotesquely over-loud entry of the horns in the slow movement (track 3, 6:58.), and a gratuitous ritardando in the finale (track 5, 4:51) Nonetheless, his unfailing sense of structure is once more in evidence, and the performance of this most loveable of all DvořŠkís symphonies is ultimately a convincing one.

A brief word about the Ďfillersí. CD1 is completed by a work that was totally new to me, the Romance in F minor for violin and orchestra. This is a ravishingly beautiful piece, full of delicate textures and Wagnerian twists of harmony. Stephanie Gonley gives a magical performance. CD2 has a far more substantial piece as its filler, the Symphonic Variations. Itís always been a mystery to me why this work isnít much more popular and well-known than it is, and Iíve come to the conclusion that it must be something to do with the title, which is rather bald and Ďacademicí sounding.. It certainly doesnít give any clues to the gloriously colourful music contained within. DvořŠkís theme has elements of the Lydian mode, so common in Czech folk music (you can find this mode easily by simply playing from F to F on all the white notes of the piano). The sharpened fourth was a sound dear to the composer, and will remind many listeners of the main theme of the finale of the Seventh Symphony. The theme of these Symphonic Variations is quite short, so that the individual variations themselves seem to follow on in an effortless stream of invention, culminating in a splendid fugue.

These performances are all of a really high class, and the recording is entirely successful in capturing them. I look forward with excitement to the next episode in this venture.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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