Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Op. 70 (1885) [37:06]
Symphony No. 8 in G major, Op. 88* (1899) [36:51]
Philharmonia Orchestra/Sir Charles Mackerras
rec. live, 9 October 2008; *12 October 2008, Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall, London. DDD

In the last few years a significant number of orchestras have established their own labels on which to issue performances, usually taken from live concerts. In London both the London Symphony Orchestra and the London Philharmonic come to mind. Another of the city’s orchestras, the Philharmonia, seems to be following a slightly different path in forming what is now a well-established and successful partnership with Signum Records. We’ve already had some fine recordings of works by Brahms, Schubert and other great composers and whilst it might be argued that the repertoire to date has been rather more confined to the mainstream than some of the releases on the aforementioned LSO and LPO labels there’s no denying the high artistic values of the Philharmonia/Signum releases. Now they turn to Czech repertoire under the leadership of arguably the finest non-Czech conductor of that country’s music.

The booklet reminds us that Sir Charles Mackerras is now eighty-five years old - and was eighty-three when these performances were given. Can that really be true? Many conductors have gained in wisdom as they’ve grown older - and I’m sure that applies to Sir Charles also - but by no means all have retained their vitality in the way that he most evidently has. These fresh and vital performances defy the years.

As well as the vitality what impresses as much in these readings is how natural and effortless they sound. It might be argued that these are standard repertoire pieces; that an orchestra such as the Philharmonia can play in its sleep. But these symphonies, familiar though they may be, most definitely don’t play themselves. These performances have surely been prepared scrupulously yet not so strictly as to squeeze the freshness out of them.

In both these symphonies the orchestra sound to be enjoying themselves. The winning third movement of the Eighth, for example, flows delightfully and with charm - and with a delicious but not overdone amount of portamento. The trio has a lovely, natural swing to it. Earlier in the same symphony - my personal favourite among the Dvořák canon - the slow movement is warmly sung, the phrasing supple and affectionate. The trumpet fanfare that introduces the finale is a true, proud call to attention. The main body of the movement, memorably labelled a set of “footloose variations” by the late Michael Steinberg, is splendidly performed here, with Mackerras and his players alive to all the changes of emphasis and mood in this most engaging movement. The gently nostalgic pages near the end are lyrically phrased but then Mackerras whips up a red-blooded coda which understandably draws an ovation from the otherwise commendably quiet audience.

The Seventh, considered by many eminent judges to be the composer’s symphonic masterpiece, is darker-hued with the influence of Brahms more evident. Again, Mackerras is a most convincing guide to the symphony. He establishes a mood of suspense at the very start and then ensures that the energy is properly channelled and released during the course of the first movement, He relaxes nicely for the more lyrical episodes but never lets the tension and intensity drop.

The slow movement begins disarmingly enough, though at times during its course Dvořák becomes more searching. Mackerras brings out all the lyricism in this gloriously-scored music but doesn’t short-change the moments when the skies darken. The very Czech cross-rhythms of the third movement are inflected beautifully - the music is always kept on its toes. The finale contains the most dramatic music in the symphony and Mackerras’s conducting is full of fire and momentum though, as ever, he relaxes perfectly when the score calls for it.

Throughout these performances the Philharmonia produce top-notch playing in all departments. Some of the woodwind playing is a particular delight but it would be invidious to single out sections or players when the corporate response is so keen and excellent. Most of these players will have played these scores umpteen times in their careers but there’s no sense of routine. The recorded sound for both performances is very clear and pleasing.

Sir Charles Mackerras has given us some splendid records during his long career, not least in the last few years - one thinks of his wonderful Beethoven cycle for Hyperion, for instance (see review) - and here he’s on top form again. There are countless versions of both of these great symphonies in the catalogue and a good number of them couple the two works. However, these spirited, authoritative and, above all, highly enjoyable readings are a match for the finest in the field.

John Quinn