ten year tenure in Liverpool (1987–1997) produced some fine music
making and raised our awareness and understanding of Czech music.
I remember a quite stunning Suk Asrael Symphony at the
Proms. These recordings date from the very beginning of Pešek’s time on the Mersey but there’s already an excellent feel for the
Czech style and sound.
The Seventh is Dvořák’s darkest Symphony – even the ending in the major cannot dispel
the feelings of brooding tragedy which pervade the work. At
first hearing Pešek
may seem to be underplaying the piece but he understands the
architecture of the music and he creates an atmosphere of tension
and foreboding, building the climaxes with skill and placing
them perfectly in context. The scherzo has a perfect dancing
gait and the outer movements are weighty and forceful.
After his darkest Symphony comes his sunniest. I have always had a
soft spot for the Eighth for it was the first Symphony I ever
heard played by a professional orchestra, and I have never lost
my affection for it, after 41 years. Pešek
is spot-on in this interpretation as he was in the Seventh.
The first movement, which is really too rich in melodies, bounces
along, and there’s some magnificent string playing towards the
end when a bit of heft is called for. The slow movement is suitably
pastoral – down to the storm music in the middle. There’s some
fine pianissimo playing here and Pešek hits exactly the right degree of nostalgia at the end before the
final climax. The suavity of the scherzo is superbly offset
by the swagger of the finale.
The American Suite, which starts the second CD, is an odd piece,
mainly because it sounds more like the Hiawatha music
of Coleridge Taylor than Dvořák – and Dvořák and British light music don’t really go together. There’s not much
you can do with this music so Pešek plays it and moves on to more important matters – the Ninth. This
performance is full of drama and action but with a heart of
gold in the famous slow movement, which has a beautiful cor
anglais solo. Pešek slackens the tempo for the trio
of the scherzo and this makes a good contrast with the hectic
music surrounding it and creates a real dance feature. The finale
is full of momentum and the music goes off like a rocket!
This is as fine a set of Dvořák’s most famous Symphonies as you’re likely to come across, and it
would grace any record shelf. The performances are superb, alive,
alert, fiery, passionate and despite Marin Alsop’s recent, staggeringly
powerful, account of the New World Symphony (see review),
which is in a class of its own, I’d say that this was one of the
very best New Worlds available today. Well, worth having.
by Jonathan Woolf