Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Slavonic Dances, Op. 46 (1878) [34:19]
Slavonic Dances, Op. 72 (1886-1887) [36:09]
Budapest Festival Orchestra/Iván Fischer
rec. March, May 1999, Italian Institute, Budapest, Hungary
If this collection looks familiar it’s because it was first released by Philips a few years back. Given that Channel are recording Dvořák’s orchestral works with Iván Fischer and his Budapest band, it made sense to procure the rights to these performances and release them under their own banner. And there’s no doubting the success of their partnership with this maestro, which has already produced a wide range of recordings, among them SACDs of Mahler’s Second, Fourth and Sixth symphonies. But as a label Channel really caught my ear with a disc from the Korean-Dutch harpist Lavinia Meijer - review - where first-rate playing and exemplary sound have produced something rather special.
As these Slavonic Dances aren’t engineered by Channel wunderkind Jared Sacks, I wasn’t at all sure how it would stack up sonically. Regrettably, Philips abandoned SACD soon after its launch, but in any case they have a well-deserved reputation for recording quality. As for the music, Dvořák’s answer to Brahms’s Hungarian Dances has had a number of successful outings on record. Perhaps one of the best-known is a CBS recording by George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra (Sony SBK 48161). And although it’s something of a classic, it hasn’t worn at all well; yes, the playing has all the spit and polish one expects from this combination, but today it strikes me as horribly hard-driven and much too brightly recorded.
Fischer’s recording is neither of those things. The opening of Op. 46 makes a thrilling impression - the soundstage is deep, wide and astonishing in its detail - and the BFO play with great verve and accuracy. Within seconds, all memories of the Cleveland disc are erased, even though Fischer shares Szell’s vice-like grip on the music. That’s no bad thing, but as Op. 46 progressed I found myself wishing this conductor weren’t quite so unbending in his treatment of Dvořák’s more supple rhythms. That said, the Dumka (No. 2) is nicely articulated and - best of all - Fischer isn’t as ruthless as Szell in the wilder finales.
But where Fischer really scores is in the startling range of colour and inner detail he coaxes from his virtuoso band. And there’s no doubting the passion with which the BFO play, the strings full-bodied and unanimous in their attack - pizzicati especially impressive - the woodwind by turns impish and ardent. And then there’s plenty of percussive weight, notably absent in the Szell recording, although some climaxes are a little diffuse. I daresay had this been a Channel original this would not have been an issue. That said, it’s a tiny quibble, which doesn’t detract from the otherwise natural and expansive sonics.
An inherent problem with sets of dances threaded like beads on a string is that they are inclined to lose all sense of individuality when heard in one sitting. This recording is no exception, and I did long for more variety, especially in Op. 46. That said, Fischer paces the music very well and phrases most elegantly; the downside of that approach is that the dances take on a sophisticated sheen that masks their rustic charm. This is more of an observation than a criticism, and Fischer isn’t alone here; Ernest Ansermet is also inclined to be a little too suave and metropolitan at times but, as with Fischer, he gets thrilling musical results.
The headlong ohne bremse at the start of the Op. 72 set invariably reminds me of the Strausses; as for the BFO, not to be outdone by their Viennese cousins they play this curtain-raiser with such brio that I found myself reaching for the repeat button. And if I felt Fischer too unyielding at times in Op. 46, I certainly warmed to his way with the swooning Starodávny (No. 2). Indeed, the rest of these dances are just as irresistible, Skočná (No. 3) despatched in a dazzle of heat and light. But Fischer always draws lovely sounds from his players, even in the quiet moments of the unusually trenchant Dumka (No. 4). And goodness, the blazing brass seem to leap out of the speakers in špercirka (No. 5). In other hands this may sound a tad vulgar, but here it’s just intoxicating.
In many ways the Op. 72 dances are the more interesting - and varied - of the two sets, and I found myself responding less equivocally to Fischer’s way with this score. Trouble is, I also found myself resorting to the repeat button all the time, which made for a much longer listening session than I’d anticipated. That said, focusing on the felicities of individual dances has its own rewards, and I’d recommend listening to them in small batches rather than as a complete set. As for the kolo-inspired No. 7, it’s seldom sounded so impulsive, the ensemble crisp and focused even under pressure. It’s marvellous musicianship, and the dynamic range and naturalness of this recording will surely make it a demonstration disc, whichever layer you choose.
Despite my initial reservations Fischer and the BFO have persuaded me there’s plenty of fine music in these collections, much of it revealed to me as never before. Throw in excellent sonics and good liner-notes and you have a most desirable issue. And while Channel’s production values are as high as ever, I don’t care for their flimsy Digipaks, which are susceptible to scuffs and tears. Still, it’s the music that really matters, and after hearing Fischer you’ll be listing your old faves on eBay.
Speaking of which, anyone want to buy my Szell?
Dan Morgan
Plenty of fine music in these collections, much of it revealed to me as never before.