Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Symphony No. 8 in G, Op. 88 [36:50]
The Noon-Day Witch, Op. 108 [13:00]
Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95, From the New World [45:10]
In Nature’s Realm, Op. 91 [14:31]
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Seiji Ozawa
rec. live, May 1991 (Opp. 91, 95), April 1992 (Opp. 88, 108), Großer Saal, Musikverein, Vienna
NEWTON CLASSICS 8802003 [49:50 + 59:40]
What ever happened to Seiji Ozawa? Since taking over the Vienna State Opera in 2002 (a job which ends this year), Ozawa has nearly fallen off the map of new recordings. Over the last eight years, I can find only a handful of new Ozawa albums, most of them collaborations with young pianists like Yundi Li (Prokofiev and Ravel concertos), as well as a Takemitsu disc and a small collection of concert DVDs. A quick search of MusicWeb International finds little trace of the conductor over the last few years. Ozawa, who turns 75 at the beginning of September, is still featured in many reissues, but his patience for, or marketability in, the recording process appears to have faded.
Thus the fact that these recordings of Dvořák’s last two symphonies, featuring the Vienna Philharmonic, are in fact live tapings from 1991 and 1992. The Eighth, from April of the latter year, is given a good performance, full of pastoral ambience and terrific wind playing. Ozawa does not really emphasize the sharp rhythms of the symphony, or go out of his way to make them seem quirky. Quirky, sharp rhythms do not have to be fast, by the way: a few years ago, I would have listened to this recording of the scherzo and wished it were faster, but now I wish it were slower.
What Ozawa does, by contrast, is to make the music very attractive. The Vienna Philharmonic are natural allies; the first movement is gorgeous and bucolic, the second highlighted by a very subtly pretty flute-clarinet duet, and the finale is fast from start to finish (occasionally too much so) with excellent playing by all. There are about fifteen seconds of applause.
The first disc also includes a brisk performance of the superb symphonic poem The Noon-Day Witch. The music is performed with great energy and clarity (always a winning combination), and the Viennese orchestra shines as usual. At 4:21 one can hear a motif played on cellos which will reappear prominently in The Wild Dove. What is missing is the element of grotesquerie or sheer storytelling panache brought to this music by a conductor like Charles Mackerras. The superb orchestration is rendered beautifully, but not indulgently; the entrance of the witch is eerily done by the violins, but at a tempo which seems curt. The recorded sound, on the other hand, is terrific, giving prominence to the percussion which becomes thrilling at the coda. This time there is no applause.
The Ninth Symphony continues the trend from the first disc: Ozawa makes no obvious mistakes but creates no singular insights either, and the Vienna Philharmonic play wonderfully. I should single out for praise the scherzo, given with special fervor, and for criticism the opening, on which there are a few seconds of applause while Ozawa walks onstage. Why were these preserved for us?
In Nature’s Realm gets the best performance of the set; the beauty of the Vienna Philharmonic and the swifter-than-usual tempi from Ozawa making the piece sound fresh, breezy, and bright. I can hear highlighted all sorts of orchestral detail which I had not heard before (from Kubelík, Ančerl, Gunzenhauser, or Netopil), like the violin pizzicatos in the fifth minute, or the excited trumpets at 9:15.
I am left with the conclusion that this is a set recorded very well, played very well, and conducted without error, which nevertheless fails to rise (except in the case of In Nature’s Realm) to the very best of the competition. Otmar Suitner’s Staatskapelle Berlin reading remains my favorite Eighth, and Kubelik, Szell, and Mackerras are among the names I’d mention for the Ninth. Ozawa’s readings, though, are respectable and enjoyable, with admirable dedication to presenting the orchestration with clarity, and this is certainly better than, say, the recent Marin Alsop discs. Maybe the best thing about this set, though, is the excellent booklet. After reading David Gutman’s excellent essay, I feel like a much better-informed listener to this music.
Not challenging the best, but nothing wrong here either