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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
100th Anniversary Edition – The Concertos, Serenades, Slavonic Dances and Requiem Mass

CD1
Cello Concerto in B minor, op.104 B191 (1896) [38:52]
Mstislav Rostropovich (cello), Boston Symphony Orchestra/Seiji Ozawa
Recorded at Symphony Hall, Boston, USA, December 1985
Violin Concerto in B minor, op.53, B.108 (1883) [33:16]
Maxim Vengerov (violin), New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Kurt Masur
Recorded at Avery Fisher Hall, New York, January 1997
CD2
Piano Concerto in G minor op.33 B63 (1878) [39:24]
Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano), Royal Concertgebouw orchestra/Nicholas Harnoncourt
Live recording, Concertgebouw Amsterdam, October 2001
Romance in F minor for violin and orchestra, op.11 B39 (1879) [11:35]
Thomas Zehetmair (violin), Philharmonia Orchestra/Eliahu Inbal
Recorded Snape Maltings Concert Hall, Aldeburgh, Suffolk, UK, December 1989
Silent Woods for cello and orchestra, op.68 no.5 B182 [6:03]
Arto Noras (cello), Kuopio Symphony Orchestra/Markus Lehtinen
Recorded at Kuopio Music Centre, Kuopio, Finland, April 2003
Slavonic Rhapsody in D, op.45 no.1 B86 (1878) [12:57]
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Vaclav Neumann
Recorded Prague 1972
CD3
Serenade for Strings in E, op.22 B52 (1875) [29:27]
Serenade in D minor for 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, double bassoon, 3 horns, cello and double bass op.44 B77 (1878) [25:00]
The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra/Hugh Wolff
Recorded at Ordway Music Centre, St. Paul, Minnesota, September 1990
Arias from ‘Rusalka, op.114, B203 (1901): Měsíĉku na nebi hlubokém (Act 1) – Song to the Moon [6:20]; Necitelná vodni moci (Act 3 Scene 1) [6:32]
Eva Urbanová (soprano), Prague Symphony Orchestra/Ondrej Lenárd
Recorded ??
CD4
Slavonic Dances, op.46 B83 (1878) [36:59]
Slavonic Dances, op.72 B147 (1886) [36:15]
Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Recorded at Stefaniesaal, Graz, June 2000 (op.72) and June 2001 (op.46)
CD5
Requiem Mass, op.89 B165 (1891) Part 1 [52:57]
CD6
Requiem Mass Part 2 [46:14]
Teresa Zylis-Gara (soprano), Stefania Toczyska (mezzo-soprano), Peter Dvorský (tenor), Leonard Mróz (bass), Chœur de Radio France, Nouvel Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France/Armin Jordan
Recorded at Studio 103, Radio France, January 1981
WARNER CLASSICS 2564 61528-2 [6CDs: 72:34 + 70:14 + 68:14 + 73:25 + 52:57 + 46:14]



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It would be churlish – and inaccurate – to deny that this issue contains some really superb recordings of the great Czech composer’s work. It is one of three sets to appear so far in which Warner are marking the centenary of Dvořák’s death; the other two being devoted to the later symphonies and symphonic poems and to the chamber music.

Yet I can’t help regretting that Warner haven’t thought of commissioning any new recordings for this auspicious and important commemoration. I suppose that would be a lot to ask in these impoverished days, but this set does have a ‘warmed over’ feel to it, brought about partly by the odd assortment of music – concertos, yes, but also the Requiem, the two Serenades, Slavonic Dances, and a couple of arias thrown in for good measure - and partly by the very variable performances, which in vintage range from Neumann’s Slavonic Rhapsody of 1972 to Vengerov’s 1997 Violin Concerto, which, when I last looked, was still in the catalogue.

CD1 begins with Rostropovich’s 1985 recording of the Cello Concerto. The great Mstislav is incapable of a poor performance, yet he is definitely not at his best here. There is not the intensity of involvement one usually feels so strongly in his playing of this work, and the orchestral contribution under Ozawa is distinctly lack-lustre, not helped by poor recording balance. Vengerov’s reading of the Violin Concerto is another matter; this is a superb performance and he and Masur collaborate wonderfully well. The young Russian captures the dance rhythms perfectly, yet is equally at home in the lyricism and fantasy of the slow movement.

The Piano Concerto, which begins CD2, has never been a favourite of mine; the writing for the solo instrument is uncharacteristically clumsy, and there is an uncomfortable feeling of forced seriousness about the opening movement, which in any case, at over eighteen minutes, rather overstays its welcome. However, it is fascinating to hear the clear echoes of Chopin in the attractive slow movement. This is where the performance is at its best, though the piano and wind instruments are far from perfectly in tune with each other. The very beautiful Violin Romance – why don’t we hear this more often? – and the attractive cello solo Silent Woods follow, and the CD is completed by Vaclav Neumann’s account of the D major Slavonic Rhapsody. This is a mediocre piece, but it is good to have a track from a genuine Czech orchestra – in this case the great Philharmonic itself.

CD3 begins with the Serenade for Strings in a fine performance by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra under Hugh Wolff. On the other hand, I had my doubts to start with about the Wind Serenade that follows; comparing it with the recording I reviewed recently by I Solisti del Vento, which is a bold, sonorous reading, I at first found this a bit timid. However, it grew on me, and I ended up being very much convinced. Whereas I Solisti produced a powerful orchestral sound, this group treats the piece as large-scale chamber music, leading to a greater intimacy in the interplay between the instruments and groupings. All the detail is revealed, and the music has a natural, unforced vibrancy to it.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the next disc; Harnoncourt in all honesty is not a conductor I associate with Slavonic Dances! But then, why not? He has produced exciting, challenging readings of Mozart and Haydn orchestral music, and it’s but a short step to Dvořák in this vein. And so it proves – the playing is alert, supple and colourful, and Harnoncourt has an instinctive feeling for the dance rhythms and the subtle fluctuations of pulse. Maybe some of the quick ones are simply a bit too fast for comfort, but there’s no denying the life in these beautifully prepared interpretations.

CDs 5 and 6 are devoted to Dvořák’s largest sacred choral work, the Requiem of 1891. Though it contains many inspiring and imaginative passages, I persist in regarding this as a courageous failure. The composer seems to have trouble in sustaining his inspiration over the large structures, so that many movements have a fidgety, discontinuous feel to them. Perhaps I could be persuaded to change my mind by a really fine performance – but this certainly isn’t it. The Chœur de Radio France simply isn’t disciplined or secure enough to cope with the multifarious demands of the music, for their tuning is often wayward and their ensemble ragged, so much so that there were numerous places where I wondered why the producers didn’t go for another take – but perhaps they just ran out of time. The orchestral playing is undistinguished, and the four soloists, while possessed of fine voices, struggle with their own serious tuning problems in their quartets – though in fairness, the composer does make quite impracticable demands in some of these ensembles. Another distracting feature is that the engineers have chosen to surround the solo voices with rather artificial sounding reverberation.

A pity to end on a negative note; but I have to say that I couldn’t recommend this set as a purchase – there are too many items that are mediocre or worse. Only the Violin Concerto and the Slavonic Dances (and perhaps the two serenades) are worthy to rank with the best versions that are available.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

 



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