Antonín DVORÁK (1841-1904)
Symphony No.8 in G major Op.88 (1898) [38:40]
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Tod und Verklärung, op.24 (1891) [24:30]
Prague Symphony Orchestra/Zdenek Koŝler
rec. 13 February 1967, Town Hall, Nottingham

Fans of Czech music and music-making will remember the name of Zdenek Koŝler with admiration. There aren’t many live performances available of his work — indeed there are fewer studio recordings than his talent clearly merited—so it’s good news that this 1967 concert, given by the touring Prague Symphony, has been preserved. Koŝler (1928-1995) was principal conductor of the orchestra between 1966 and 1967, a period during which he also directed the Komische Oper n East Berlin.

This was a distinguished period in his career and his programme was chosen, one assumes, to appeal both for its promotion of a great Czech symphony and also to demonstrate his handling of the Strauss tone poem.

His Tod und Verklärung gains in amplitude and expressive depth, Koŝler reserving the longest of lines for the work’s moving culminatory pages. Earlier he is plangent and the wind playing is notably communicative. Sometimes there is a want of atmosphere, certainly if one judges him against, say, Kempe, but tension is incrementally ratcheted with assurance. There’s a drop out on the tape at around 7:13.

Surprisingly it’s the Dvorák Symphony which is the more personalised and the less successful performance. Koŝler’s approach is very expansive in the slow movement and finale, whereas he takes relatively conventional tempi in the opening Allegro and the Allegretto. The distinctive Prague Symphony winds are on show in the opening movement, and the fine violas and cellos too. But the Adagio does trudge. It is precisely punctuated, however, and develops a curiously questioning quality—reserved, nervous; at points quasi-operatic—which I take it is the conductor’s narrative approach. The melancholy is pervasive, but for me there’s a dogged quality that mires this movement. The Scherzo is well taken—one recalls that many years later Charles Mackerras recorded the symphony with this orchestra for Supraphon and Koŝler is his equal here, if a touch ‘straight’. The finale returns to the earlier deliberate tempo. It means that transitions can be a bit heavy booted, though the dreamy final pages are well handled.

This is a considered but highly personal view of the symphony. It’s certainly fascinating to hear, though I suspect many will reject the expansive tempo and phrasal decision making. I was certainly very glad to hear it, and found its stance thought-provoking though not ultimately convincing.

The recording has been well realised. The sound spectrum is pretty good, the lower strings and winds coming through with fidelity, the solo violin/wind pirouetting passage in the slow movement both well balanced and well caught by the microphone. There are however some drop outs, especially at the start of the first movement. They do pass quickly.

Jonathan Woolf

Masterwork Index: Dvorak Symphony 8 ~~ Tod und Verklärung

A considered but highly personal view of the symphony.