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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Slavonic Rhapsody, Op. 45, No.1 in D major (1878) [12.13]
Slavonic Rhapsody, Op. 45, No.2 in G minor (1878) [14.11]
Slavonic Rhapsody, Op. 45, No.3 in A flat major (1878) [12.28]
Slavonic Dance, Op. 46, No. 1 in C minor (1878) [3.44]*
Slavonic Dance, Op. 46, No. 2 in E minor (1878) [4.26]*
Slavonic Dance, Op. 46, No. 3 in D major (1878) [4.20]*
Slavonic Dance, Op. 46, No. 4 in F major (1878) [6.28]*
Slavonic Dance, Op. 46, No. 5 in A major (1878) [3.09]*
Slavonic Dance, Op. 46, No. 6 in A flat major (1878) [5.37]*
Slavonic Dance, Op. 46, No. 7 in C minor (1878) [3.21]*
Slavonic Dance, Op. 46, No. 8 in G minor (1878) [4.09]*
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra/Kurt Masur
*Vienna Symphony/Karel Ančerl
rec. Leipzig, August 1985; *Musikverein, Vienna, February 1958
PHILIPS ELOQUENCE 476 7334 [74.11]


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 Skočis particularly messy - betray their relative unease. At best a footnote, then, to a distinguished conductor's career.

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.

Masur's Dvořák 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


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