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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Symphony No. 6 in D major, Op. 60 (1880) [47:48]
Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
Idyll (1878) [29:31]
Seattle Symphony/Gerard Schwarz
rec. S. Mark Taper Foundation Auditorium, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, Washington, USA, 5 and 8 May 2009 (Dvořák); Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall, Benaroya Hall, 27 and 29 April 2011 (Janáček) DDD
NAXOS 8.572698 [77:19]

The first things one notices about this recording are the warm strings and mellow brass. Without a doubt this is the best I have yet to hear from the Seattle Symphony. Gerard Schwarz also seems a natural interpreter of Dvořák. Unlike many of the Naxos CDs featuring this orchestra and conductor, the present issue is a new recording and not something that was reissued from Delos. Schwarz led the orchestra from 1985 to 2011 and is now Conductor Laureate. Based on this disc recorded in rich, vibrant sound, let’s hope he continues to make many more discs with them. 

I compared this account with those by Kertész and the London Symphony, and Bělohlávek and the BBC Symphony. Their interpretations are more straightforward than Schwarz’s, and Kertész is especially incisive and dramatic. Overall, Schwarz’s tempos are a bit slower and he varies speed to a greater degree. He is that much more flexible and builds the first movement tutti excitingly. Both Kertész and he take the repeat in this movement, while Bělohlávek does not. One could argue that the symphony is long enough without it, but the themes are so beautiful that I don’t mind at all hearing the exposition twice. The Adagio second movement is particularly powerful and dramatic under Schwarz with especially beautiful horn playing both near the beginning and later in the movement. Kertész and Bělohlávek do not make such a strong impression here, though they are certainly idiomatic. Schwarz is more romantic, and the orchestra plays with great feeling. Nothing, however, seems overdone to me. All three conductors do well in the third movement Scherzo, very reminiscent of a Slavonic Dance, with nicely sprung Czech rhythms. With his greater flexibility, Schwarz speeds up the ending of the movement more than the others, which only adds to the excitement of the dance. At first I thought his tempo modulations were a bit too extreme in the finale, where he slows the tempo for the theme when the full orchestra first gets it (about 45 seconds in) and he tends to vary the tempos in this movement more than in the others. Both Kertész and Bělohlávek more or less play it straight, but I have become acclimatised to Schwarz’s modulations in a movement where the composer’s inspiration may be working at a somewhat lower level than earlier in the symphony. The Seattle orchestra’s lower brass is also outstanding before the coda, and the movement ends in a blaze of triumph. I don’t plan on giving away either Kertész or Bělohlávek, but am very happy to add this new version to my library.
The disc-mate, Janáček’s early Idyll for strings is both unusual and appropriate. If you were to listen to the work “blindfold”, you would most likely guess Dvořák, or even Grieg, but not the composer of the great operas, Sinfonietta, or the Glagolitic Mass. Obviously, Janáček was very much under the shadow of Dvořák at the time. Indeed, it predates the symphony by two years. Idyll is divided into seven movements that contain enough variety to sustain interest, even if one doesn’t go away humming the tunes as one does with Dvořák. The moods of the work run from elegiac and melancholy to bold and dramatic. The longest movement, the fifth, marked Adagio is my favorite. It begins with a slow and rather sad theme and this leads to a faster section that is reminiscent of a Slavonic dance, after which it again becomes slow and lyrical. The sixth movement is also tuneful with a waltzing theme that shows hints of the Janáček’s later Lachian Dances. Overall, maybe not a great work and hardly representative of the composer, but very pleasant nonetheless. Schwarz and the Seattle strings do the work proud.
So, Naxos has come up with another winner. I would love to hear these performers in the Fifth Symphony, which gets fewer recordings than the Sixth. As usual, Naxos does not stint on the presentation with Keith Anderson‘s detailed notes on the works, as well as notes on the performers.
Leslie Wright