AntonŪn DVORŃK (1841-1904)
Symphonic Variations, Op. 78 [22:47]
Symphony No. 8 in G major, Op. 88 [37:32]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Charles Mackerras
rec. live, 24 April, 1992, Royal Festival Hall, London, UK

This is, believe it or not, the third live recording of Sir Charles Mackerras conducting DvorŠkís Eighth Symphony. The present one is in fact the earliest in the ďseries,Ē dating from 1992 at the Royal Festival Hall; it wasnít until the last five or so years of his life that Mackerras produced live Eighths with the Prague Symphony, on Supraphon, and with the Philharmonia on Signum. Theyíre all very good and though none are my favorite - thatís Otmar Suitner with the Staatskapelle Berlin; the first movementís coda has an irrepressible extra thrill of energy - Mackerrasís accounts are excellent and this new one is as fine as the other two.

They are by and large the same performances. Mackerrasís conducting is generally unerring. The first movement flows with grace, wit and satisfying richness in all three recordings, and the finales are almost completely identical, all taking each variation at a consistent tempo and building suspensefully to the great final ruckus. The LPO scherzo is just a touch more relaxed in tempo, which I like, and the adagio is a rather gratifying minute slower than in the other two readings, giving the music a slightly greater bloom. On the other hand, the Prague Symphony woodwinds help make that account unmissable, and Supraphonís sound quality there is quite a bit more satisfying than that with the Philharmonia or the admittedly fairly old LPO recording.

The main differences: programming; the Supraphon disc comes with the Ninth Symphony, and the Signum disc comes with the Seventh. This one presents more of a rarity: the Symphonic Variations, a twenty-two minute work thatís quite substantial. For those unfamiliar, itís the product of a dare of sorts; a friend of DvorŠkís heard a song he had written, thought the theme odd and undevelopable, and challenged him to compose variations on it. The result is a minor stroke of genius, a variation sequence in a broad, folksy arc from the admittedly highly peculiar main tune through a gradually downward course into a central series which function as a slow movement; then we have a highly accomplished fugue and, to escape the formality thereof, a rousing final polka. Itís all brilliantly orchestrated, and a lot of fun, and this is as good a performance as itís possible to hear. Kubelik, Alsop and other conductors all lead faster accounts than this - Kubelik a good two minutes faster - but itís hard to top Charles Mackerras and the LPO for sheer atmosphere, grand scope and unwavering pace.

The second main difference between this and the other live Mackerras/DvorŠk Eighths: price. All three accounts are priced within a pound or two of each other on most retailer sites, but the London Philharmonic label is generally slightly cheaper than Signum or Supraphon. Still, if you want to hear one or the other, comparison-shopping makes the price factor negligible. Theyíve all got the slightly less vivid sound quality which sometimes hampers live broadcasts, but the Supraphon is slightly more colorful. The difference really boils down to which orchestra and/or coupled work you want to hear. Iím happy to have all three but would choose the Prague Symphony recording if I had to discard two; the Ninth just so happens to be one of my absolute top choices in that work. Incidentally, if all that duplication isnít enough, the LPO concerts which produced this CD were immediately followed up by a trip to the studio to record the exact same program for EMI. I havenít got that recording to compare, but it is very deeply out of print.

The live recordings of Charles Mackerras which have poured out of the vaults in recent years are a welcome trend which I hope wonít be stopping soon. They have all been a joy, continuing to reveal Mackerrasís generosity of spirit and obvious sympathy for every work he interprets. The Philharmonia Schubert Ninth is magnificent - and quite exciting; the Czech DvorŠk recordings consistently outstanding. Orchestras and radio stations around the world ought to be combing the archives and bringing out more of Mackerras in concert. Iíll be eager to listen.

Brian Reinhart

There are now three live recordings of Mackerras leading this symphony. Choose yours by the coupling - or Supraphonís winning sound.