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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904) 
The Dvořák Cycle - Volume 1
Symphony No. 7 in D minor Op 70 (1884-5) [38:24]
Slavonic Dances (second set) Op 72 (1886) [38:58]
Romance for violin and orchestra Op 11 (1873-79) [14:46]
Ivan Zenaty (violin)
Prague Symphony Orchestra/Jiří Bĕlohlávek
rec. live, Alter Oper, Frankfurt, 1993
directed by Rodney Greenberg.
ARTHAUS MUSIK 102135  [100:00]

It is easy to be cynical about claims that musicians from the same country as the composer have some special insight into that music, but this DVD provides strong evidence that it might be true.  These are not especially glamorous performances, nor particularly glamorous musicians - several of their instruments look as if they have been kept in a shed for many years. However they play with an understanding of the music that is surely the result not merely of long years of exposure to it but of a feeling for the shape of its phrases as well as of the pieces as a whole.  Perhaps it is a question of language, but whatever it is, for once, Dvořák’s many instructions are neither ignored nor exaggerated.  They simply fall apparently naturally into place.  The wind and brass have an earthy quality which is the opposite of the kind of organ-like sonority that some conductors seek, but which admirably suits the way that Dvořák scores.  The strings may not play with the sheen that some orchestras can provide but they articulate the music in a way that brings it immediately to life.
In addition Rodney Greenberg, the director, treats his audience as intelligent adults, not needing the kind of hyperactive movements which have spoiled too many BBC broadcasts in recent years.  The camerawork is by no means static - it follows the musical ebb and flow.  In the repeated sections of the fourth Dance, for example, the camera shows different instruments each time, emphasizing the complexity of Dvořák’s writing.  At times, but not enough to annoy, the director seems to have a fixation with the triangle but fortunately it is not balanced unrealistically loudly.  It cannot be said that the Prague Symphony Orchestra is the most exciting of orchestras to watch, but they are clearly good musicians engaged in a serious and involving task, and as a result we become involved also.  I am sure from seeing this that it must be a great pleasure to play with Jiří Bĕlohlávek.  His beat is clear and inclusive of the changing character of the music and of its phrasing.  He conducts the main items from memory although quite correctly he has a score for the Romance – soloists tend to worry if neither they nor the conductor have one available!  In that very lovely piece Ivan Zenaty plays gently - and quietly when required – in a style which has nothing of the show-off soloist about it.  Although it is last it is in many ways the highlight of the concert.
The items have clearly been filmed at more than one concert, and are presented in the order shown above, which is perhaps not ideal for viewing in sequence.  But it is better in any event to savour the three items individually.  The concert hall in which the performances take place is large but only the orchestra and front rows of the audience are visible, along with some impressive organ pipes at the rear of the orchestra.  Presumably because of the number of string players employed, the woodwind are doubled in the tuttis of the main works.  The first desk players play with immense character in the solo passages, and there is particular pleasure to be obtained from the gentle vibrato of the horn players.  Not as much as used to be the case with Russian orchestras, but enough to give them a very distinct character which suits the music well.
There are very few complaints.  The booklet contains several pages of interesting notes about the music but these do contain a few factual errors.  For instance contrary to what they say the Dances are scored with trombones, as we can see right from the first Dance.  My main complaint concerns the seating of the orchestra, which follows the “normal” arrangement of having the violins massed on the conductor’s left.  The alternative of having first and second violins on opposite sides is preferable in almost all music of this period.  Without it the many answering phrases in, for example, the third and fourth movements of the Symphony sound as though they are played by the same players, turning from a dialogue to a monologue, with some loss to the character of the music.  This is however a complaint that could be made about most orchestras in 1993 and now.  There are a few minor slips of ensemble and intonation but none worthy of mention or likely to be too irritating on repetition.
What matters is that here we have three of  Dvořák’s best works played idiomatically and very enjoyably, and presented visually in a way that enhances that enjoyment.  I understand that this is intended as the first of a cycle of recordings of Dvořák’s main works, and I look forward with eager anticipation to its successors.
John Sheppard


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