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Bedřich SMETANA (1824-1884)
Má Vlast (1872-79) [77:18]
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Slavonic Dances Op.46 B83 (1878) [35:19]
Slavonic Dances Op.72 B72 (1886) [37:34]
NHK Symphony Orchestra/Václav Neumann
rec. December 1978 (Smetana) and November 1990 (Dvořák), live at NHK Hall, Tokyo
KING INTERNATIONAL KKC2037-38 [77:18 + 78:53]

The latest King International release to come my way is this two-disc release which presents Vaclav Neumann in his native repertoire in Tokyo with the city’s NHK Symphony. Má Vlast was taped in December 1978 whilst the Slavonic Dances followed in November 1990, offering a slice of Czech music that, whilst hardly in any sense rare, is at least rarely heard on disc from Tokyo. Whether that is much of an inducement presumably depends on one’s attitude to live performances and to multiple recordings of familiar works by an eminent musician.
The NHK Má Vlast is variably attractive. Neumann had already recorded the work at least twice to my knowledge, the first in Leipzig, which performance I have never much liked, and in 1975 with the Czech Philharmonic, a recording that I have always enjoyed. It’s clear that the Tokyo performance gets better as it goes along, but that means that the first two movements, and they are, with the fourth the best known and the best, musically, are not always convincing. Vyšehrad is a bit stiff and rhythmically unyielding and I can’t help feeling nervousness in the air. Neumann hustles it a bit more than I have ever heard from him. Added to this, the sound throughout is not especially well balanced. The brass is cutting and the body of string tone relatively weak. The woodwinds are good. Percussion is over prominent. Thus there’s no real warmth in this recording. I don’t hear much structural insight in Vltava, nor any real excitement - listen to Jeremiáš, any Talich cycle, or Kubelík, not least in his part-complete 78s set. From Bohemia’s Forests and Meadows stabilises things rhythmically, but its Big Tune goes missing, a victim of unbalanced sectional work. Greater confidence follows for the rest of the cycle. Whilst there are attractive things here and Neumann’s conducting is, on balance, better and more convincing than in his better played Leipzig cycle, I can’t offer any special recommendation for this Tokyo performance.
Both sets of Slavonic Dances followed many years later on 9 November 1990. I’m a big fan of these Dances, but not even I would sit through both sets in one evening, not unless Talich himself, or some other member of the elite Czech conducting dynasty were to preside. I’d have preferred the Scherzo capriccioso, Op.66 and a tone poem or two to balance things. Still, I concede that on disc this is not a problem and many great recorded performances have been thus harnessed. My own greatest loves are Kubelík and his Bavarians, though I know that some stern critics find them too suave by half, and the great Karel šejna’s epochal 1959 set with the Prague Philharmonic which I (heretically) prefer to Talich’s own slightly earlier sets.
These 1990 Neumann performances are good, better played and balanced, by far, than the Smetana of 1978. I don’t have many complaints other than to note that his tempo for the Allegretto scherzando of No.6 in D major from the Op.46 set is rather laboured and at his tempo the last of the Op.72 is a touch sluggish. There aren’t the distinctive rhythmic stresses that Czech orchestras possess or the ease of rubati, but these are sprightly readings. Still, again, no one would seek out this Tokyo performance in preference to his 1972 Teldec sets reissued on Warner Apex, with the Czech Phil, or the 1985 or 1993 sets he made, though I’ve always thought them somewhat lacking in spontaneity when measured alongside the 1972 recording.
Annotation is only in Japanese and both discs are filled almost to the foaming brim. The audience, except for moments of clapping, is very quiet.
So, it all comes down to a keenness - or not - to experience Neumann in unfamiliar geographical circumstances in ancillary recordings of canonic Czech repertoire.
Jonathan Woolf