While none of these performances - from recordings made over twenty-five
years apart! - is exactly indispensable, the disc is of both
general and historical interest.
Its historical value lies, unexpectedly, in the Slavonic Dances.
Karel Ančerl, seemingly alone among major Czech conductors,
appears never to have recorded these with any of the Prague-based
orchestras. The online Ančerl discography only lists this
recording - in quite a variety of international issues
- and a Berlin Radio recording (possibly a broadcast). For practical
purposes, this Vienna Op. 46 set is the only readily available
document of his way with the scores.
Ančerl, of course, was steeped in this style, as evidenced by
his generally sprightly pacing, pointed, cheerfully lilting
rhythms and occasional hint of nostalgia. I was surprised at
the conductor's deadpan treatment of the E minor Dumka
- the supposed martinet Szell (Sony) phrased and inflected it
more lovingly. On the other hand, the concluding G minor Furiant
is the best of the set, with the buoyant ease of the lyric episodes
setting off the main theme's driving energy.
One misses the Czech Philharmonic, though. The Vienna Symphony's principal
oboe is wheezy and recessive; the raw-toned principal trumpet
evokes the Salvation Army; and dynamics gravitate towards the
mezzo forte end of the spectrum. The players respond
plausibly to Ančerl's direction, with a solid ensemble
sonority, but clunky, unsubtle transitions and scrambled codas
- that of the A major Skočná is particularly messy - betray their
relative unease. At best a footnote, then, to a distinguished
For the general collector, meanwhile, the Slavonic Rhapsodies
fill an awkward gap. Given the popularity of the two sets of
Slavonic Dances, it's strange that conductors so rarely
play the equally melodic, appealing Rhapsodies. Perhaps
they're daunted by the questions of pacing and sectional balance
posed by these larger, more nearly "symphonic" constructs
- like bigger-framed versions of the Scherzo capriccioso.
In any event, recorded accounts have been comparatively few.
symphony performances in New York were well received, so it's no surprise that his treatment of the
Rhapsodies is similarly sympathetic. His sensitive shading
of the lyric phrases contrasts nicely with the bumptious folksy
episodes. Nor are his musical characterizations merely generic:
note the touch of ceremonial grandeur at the start of the D
major, or the hymn-like devotion as the same piece winds down.
Only in the bluff, hearty climaxes, firmly weighted in the German
manner, does a touch of squareness intrude - they're jubilant
without quite attaining unbuttoned exuberance. Still, Masur's
affectionate, understanding renditions will serve well enough
until an authentically Czech performance becomes easily obtainable.
The 1958 Vienna analog
sound is clear and vividly present, if a touch dry. I much preferred
it to the comparatively veiled 1985 Leipzig recording, where, save in some deliciously airy woodwind passages,
the reverberation dulls the orchestral timbres to a uniform
grey and produces congestion in tutti, especially when
the timpani get going.
Stephen Francis Vasta