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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841–1904)
CD1 [75:12]
Symphony No.7 in D minor, op.70 (1884/1885) [37:42]
Symphony No.8 in G, op.88 (1889) [37:14]
CD2 [67:12]
American Suite, op.98b (1895) [22:33]
Symphony No.9 in E minor, From the New World, op.95 (1893) [44:26]
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Libor Pešek
rec. 1987, Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool. DDD
VIRGIN CLASSICS 5220392 [75:12 + 67:12] 
Experience Classicsonline

Libor Pe
šek’s 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.

Bob Briggs

see also Review by Jonathan Woolf


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