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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

 

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Josef Bohuslav FOERSTER (1859-1951)
Symphony No.4 Easter Eve Op.54 (1905) [47.08]
Festive Overture Op.70 (1907)  [9.26]
Meine Jugend (My Youth) Symphonic Poem Op.44 (c 1904-05) [15.50]
Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra/Lance Friedel
rec. Slovak Radio, Bratislava, September 2004
NAXOS 8.557776 [72.33]

 

 

Excellent stuff for admirers of the Czech muse. Foerster was born a subject of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and spent an unusually long period in Vienna. His accent is far nearer to the Viennese-Bohemian than the Bohemian-Viennese. For many years we have existed on the 1968 Prague Symphony/Smetáček Fourth Symphony which specialists have augmented with the 1948 Czech Philharmonic/Kubelik (both Supraphon) and the occasional broadcast performance. So it’s excellent news that this new Slovak performance of the Symphony has been newly issued augmented by two previously unrecorded works.

Let’s start there. The Festive Overture dates from 1907. It starts big and carries on thus; “flair and elegance” Friedel’s notes advise us and he’s not wrong. The dance rhythms, the waltz so evocatively Viennese, are untroubled, the Mahlerian echoes perhaps rather undigested, and there’s a rather unexpected coda just when one expects an injection of even more unbridled adrenalin.

Meine Jugend is a slightly earlier work though it isn’t precisely dated in the notes so far as I can see – something that applies to the symphony as well and which I’ve added. There’s a heavingly romantic second subject, strong reverie and nostalgia (as one would expect) interrupted by chirruping winds. The influences are Dvořák especially in the wind writing – strong reminiscences of Act I of Rusalka – and Smetana; Vltava is evoked more than once, not least in the trumpet climax. There’s a jokey cod-academic fugato and plenty of fun. It’s not as reflective and as personal a work as one might have imagined from its title.

The Symphony is the work by which Foerster is perhaps best known. From its opening Mahlerian march, with its allusions to the First Symphony (Mahler’s Bohemianism is another link) we meet a sombrely unfolding opening Molto sostenuto. In this performance it’s not as intense or fleet as the Smetáček and the Slovak strings are not as nutty and woody as their much earlier Prague counterparts. Kubelik, in a recording that hasn’t come up well in the last transfer, is very slow in comparison, mired in grief, inward and intense. It’s a most remarkable reading, in which both outer movements are big symphonic statements in their own right but unfortunately in dim and very congested 1948 sound. I recommend it for the Foerster admirer but in this context the competition is the 1968 traversal.

The Brucknerian brass climax at around 8.30 in this movement shows another powerful influence on Foerster’s emotive-symphonic thinking. Listen to the straighter Slovak winds here; the 1968 Prague winds had a touch more character to them, albeit idiosyncratic character at times.

If I have quibbles with this new reading they centre mainly on the rather po-faced scherzo. Next to Smetáček’s enviable rhythmic wit and pointing Friedel sounds rather tame and rather too heavy as well. The slow movement is a glorious one and here Friedel really expands and wrings every drop of emotion. The orchestral balance here is especially judicious – we can catch the solo violin/two bassoon writing – and this suits the inward and reflective music making. The Slovak performance bathes more lingeringly whilst Smetáček’s approach is that much more bracing and lithe. He is more outgoingly lyrical and the Brucknerian build up in this movement is more eruptive, and intense, in his hands.

The Mahlerian gloom that pervades the finale’s opening is pitched faster and more tensely in the older recording. Friedel is good with dynamics and sensitively shapes this movement but Smetáček, alert to those moments of weakness in its structure, is careful to push on to mitigate them. Again, the very pungent Prague Symphony winds make a strong contrast to the more homogenised - doubtless Beecham would have said pasteurised - Slovak Radio players.

The Naxos performance is characterised by fine balances and care; it’s a warmly sympathetic reading. I prefer the older one under Smetáček for all sorts of reasons but it was recorded nearly forty years ago. So newcomers will revel in Foerster’s splendid Symphony and will enjoy the crisp and affectionate direction of the Naxos and at bargain price. They might additionally want to know Foerster’s movement indications, ones Naxos have omitted, will be found on other discs and in biographical works on the composer, and they explain the symphony’s Easter Eve title in greater detail – The Road to Calvary, A Child’s Good Friday, The Charm of Solitude and Holy Saturday Victorious.

Jonathan Woolf

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