Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Symphony no. 6 Op.60 [41:55]
In der Natur Op.91 [14:19]
Carneval Op.92 [9:30]
Othello Op.93 [13:59]
Dortmund Philharmonic Orchestra/Jac van Steen
rec. Konzerthaus Dortmund, 19-22 August 2010. Stereo. DDD

How do you like your Dvořák, fired with Wagnerian passion or imbued with gentler Bohemian colours? If it’s the latter, this may be the Sixth Symphony for you. Jac van Steen and the Dortmund Philharmonic give a coherent and engaging reading of the work, but it’s not the most passionate or dramatic you’ll hear on disc. Tempos are steady, without actually being slow, and climaxes are prepared with expansive rallentandi, which shape the music magnificently, but don’t exactly ratchet up the tension.

MD&G pride themselves on the quality of their audio production, and the recorded sound here is up to their usual high standards. The recording was made in the Dortmund Philharmonic’s home venue, the Konzerthaus Dortmund, which was completed in 2002 and which on the evidence of this recording has a very fine acoustic indeed. It also has a very curious logo: a silhouette of a winged rhinoceros. The precision of the audio reveals an orchestra with an enviable wind section and a string section that is enthusiastic if slightly imprecise. The ensemble in the strings often suffers in the louder tuttis, although they more than make up for it with the marvellous swells they give to the hairpinned phrases in the more lyrical sections. And the detail of the sound really lets you hear inside the string section. Dvořák himself was a viola player, which may help explain his creative use of the viola section in his orchestration. It’s not something I’d thought of before, but the transparency of the sound on this recording really lets you hear what the violas are up to: in the opening, for example, where they play pianissimo triads divisi with the horns, or their triplet accompaniment figures in the finale.

The exposition repeat is omitted in the first movement. It’s no great loss really, and the decision may have been taken simply in order to squeeze the three concert overtures into the CDs running time. In this more laid back reading, the adagio is the more successful of the inner movements, especially with the opportunities it offers for the orchestra to show off its impressive woodwinds and horns. The scherzo is up to tempo, but it doesn’t quite reach the ‘furiant’ that the composer specifies. Again, the string sound is a little imprecise, although it is great to hear those viola runs ascending from the middle of the texture. The pastoral opening to the finale plays to all of the van Steen’s and the Dortmund Philharmonic’s strengths: atmosphere, impressively controlled long accelerando and crescendo, and plenty more opportunities to hear the woodwind. But the tuttis in the finale suffer in this kind of reading; they’re all too matter-of-fact, without the kind of impact the movement needs for punctuation.

There is more drama in the overtures Opp. 91-93. The curiously macaronic track-listing describes the works collectively as ‘Concert Overtures’ then gives the individual titles in German. I’m familiar with the works under the collective title of ‘Nature, Life and Love’ but it is interesting listening to them together. Each succeeds as an individual work, but when performed as a single unit their variable quality becomes clear, particularly the weakness of the Othello overture in comparison with Carnival. But all are performed with gusto, Carnival in particular getting the adrenaline going in a way that is conspicuously absent in the symphony.

Do MDG have any further Dvořák releases in the pipeline? Jac van Steen’s civilised approach could work well in some of his other works, some of the more Bohemian tone poems perhaps, or maybe the Fourth or Eight Symphonies. The combination of a new concert hall and a distinctive orchestral sound is the ideal subject for the technically accomplished sound engineering of Musikproduktion Dabringhaus und Grimm. Long may their collaboration continue.

Gavin Dixon