When Berlin Classics say ‘Basics’ they mean Basics. There are no liner notes with this set. Nothing. The same, presumably, goes for the others in the series, which so far includes:-
0300035BC Mozart: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 - 27 Annerose Schmidt (piano) Dresden Philharmonic/Kurt Masur
0300037BC Schubert Symphonies Nos. 1-9 Dresden Staatskapelle/Herbert Blomstedt
0300038BC Haydn Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-62 Walter Olbertz
On the other hand this is Dvorák we are talking about and information is pretty easily available in libraries and courtesy Bing, Google or other favoured search engine.
The box is a sturdy card wallet design and the individual envelopes are tougher than the usual white slips. The price is also bargain basement so if you felt tempted, as well you might, to explore all of Dvorak’s symphonies you could do very much worse.
The recordings are late analogue and are from the Berlin Classics pre-Unification Eterna label. They have already been reissued on CD at least once before as Berlin Classics 0002783CCC and retail copies of that package are still to be had if a price differential suits.
Until the 1980s, from a western perspective, the record industries of the DDR and the Soviet Union might as well have been parallel universes. The communist states established their own catalogues of the great classics. Soviet activity was let loose on the West through licensing and special import arrangements but these only scratched the surface of a mightily productive Iron Curtain record industry. Since the onset of the CD and Glasnost and Perestroika those record catalogues have opened. Berlin Classics/Edel were quick to liberate parts of the Eterna catalogue or at least the later analogue chapter though they still have not given fully disclosure on the orchestral recordings of Ernst Hermann Meyer. The present Dvorák set forms part of that initiative.
Setting aside various Czech projects 1960s and 1970s record collectors intent on a complete set of Dvorák Symphonies could go to Kubelik on DG, to Rowicki on Philips and to Kertesz on Decca. Kertesz always scored high and his is a desirable set multiply reissued. I have a great deal of time for Rowicki's cycle but here comes Suitner slightly later in the day than the other three with an enthusiastic if slightly stern Germanic cycle.
The First Symphony, as a work, is gently inspired with some good ideas but not sustained across the work's whole length. Some of the young composer’s ideas, as in the finale, tire and lose momentum. Still, there's fun to be had. The reading is lively - it's clear that the musicians are giving it their committed attention and the music must take the blame when our attention drifts. The Second Symphony, especially in its last two movements raises the game with some vigorous and engaging ideas and treatments. The finale drifts into bombast. The Third Symphony makes another step forward in terms of inspiration and - in its three movements to the others' four - makes a good listen. There’s a particularly lively and almost impudent finale.
With the first three works behind us many of us leave behind the unfamiliar. The Fourth Symphony became known in the West shortly after its three predecessors joined the numbered canon in the 1960s. There was a CFP LP (201) of the Fourth by Neumann and the Prague Symphony Orchestra. It's a work with some supple and shapely ideas especially in the stamping final Allegro. It’s not the most exciting of the nine but it goes well enough here. Suitner is a sensitive director and he has no trouble with accepting the Beethovenian episode in the Fourth’s Allegro Molto (rather enchained to the Seventh Symphony). The Scherzo is four-square but the Allegro Con Brio goes with a swing and a sigh if it does not totally avoid the shoals of repetition. We should not look for the satisfactions of the last three symphonies in this work. There are lower key delights but they are definitely lower key. The disc has appeared before as part of a whopping Suitner fest box (see review; see review).
The Fifth and the Sixth are much better and stand near the gateway between the immaturely formed and imagined early symphonies and the perfection of the folk dramas of the last three. With No. 5 we reach what used to be ‘No. 1’ in the old numbering. This works well and is recognisably the mature Dvorák. The outer movements with fragments of Czech dancing have their own life and radiate well-being. Aside from a tendency towards over-dramatising Suitner hits the spot. The Sixth lilts irresistibly in the first movement. The Furiant of the third movement has dizzying power but sufficient torque to decelerate convincingly into those delightful Czech pastoral asides.
The Seventh is a darker-hued work with Brahmsian overtones to set alongside the countryside revels, serenades and dances. The full cream lilt of the third movement is not underplayed. The density of the finale emerges with a stern accent perhaps because it plays so directly to the Staatskapelle's familiarity with the Hamburg composer's Third Symphony. The fugal sturdiness of the finale is not sold short either.
The Eighth sighs sweetly; not overly so in the Adagio though Suitner finds a dignified honey in the Allegretto grazioso. The finale rings out with that judicious juxtaposition of drama in the trumpet fanfares and Nobilmente in the writing for massed strings. This is swirled into a headlong Furiant at 2:10 with time to charm the birds from the trees with the flute solo at 2.34. The finale is evidence of how great an orchestra was the Staatskapelle - a virtuoso ensemble caught in full cry.
If the background to the Eighth is British - it was written for Oxford University - the Ninth is associated with the USA. Suitner's Ninth goads the furies into a headlong chase with black clouds scudding along in the two outer movements. A dignified almost liturgical air hangs over the famous Largo. It is done with a respect that allows the music to emerge with simple beauty. This is one of the most loving and unglamorous versions I have heard; a cleansing draught alongside the lassitude of many more famous readings. The finale leans into four-square rhythmic discipline to set beside the countryside japes.
Recording sessions started in 1979 with the Fifth and culminated in the Seventh and Ninth in 1983 – so just at the dawn of the CD.
Such a pity that Suitner was not also turned loose on the Dvorák tone poems and overtures. Meantime do not disdain this collection.