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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904) Legends, Op.59 (B.122) arr. composer from piano works, B.117 (1881) [42:22] Scherzo capriccioso, Op.66, B.131 (1883) [12:36]
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Karel Šejna
rec. January 1956 (Legends) and February-March 1955 (Scherzo capriccioso), Dvořák Hall, Rudolfinum, Prague FORGOTTEN RECORDS FR163 [55:01]
Karel Šejna’s 1956 LP recording of the Legends has already been reissued by Supraphon at least once [SU1919-2] coupled with the Symphonic Variations, which was recorded earlier, in 1952. It didn’t sound especially bright on the LP pressing, but it did sound much better on the Supraphon transfer and similarly here in Forgotten Records’ own transfer where the Scherzo capriccioso, Op.66 has been added as the substantial filler. This was recorded in 1955.
The lineage and disparate represented traditions (Bohemian/Moravian) of Czech conductors is endlessly fascinating. Some, most obviously Talich and Ančerl have had editions devoted to them, and Kubelík’s recordings are well-known, but others, whose discography is a little patchier, have not been so fortunate. I’m waiting for truly first-class CD transfers of Bakala’s legacy, for instance, and much more of Jeremiáš than is currently available. Then, what about Stupka, and the representative non-operatic side of Vogel and Chalabala? Into this conundrum falls the figure of Šejna, pretty much revered by those who know his recordings – superb Fibich, a wonderful and valedictory Novák Moravian-Slovak suite in Brno, and Dvorak 6 are just three among many. I appreciate that Supraphon’s reissue programme has slowed dramatically in the past few years but I still think that his legacy, which is not in truth extensive, should be paid the same kind of attention shown to, say, Ančerl. Plea over, though I’m sure many who read this will agree with me.
To deal with the matter in hand, what makes his recording of the Legends so distinctive is his amiably incisive sense of characterisation. There is that fine, firm cultivation of bass-up sonority – a very familiar trait with him and unsurprisingly so. Some may associate it with an inclination for a certain German sonority but in point of fact Šejna began life as a professional double-bassist. Rhythm is deftly pointed and colourful wind playing from the Czech Philharmonic is evident throughout – just try No.2. Chauvinistic or not, it is easy to believe that only a Czech could bring such a supple sense of narrative to the fourth legend – the drama and contrast are unveiled with a sovereign sense of narrative and a very special appreciation of the work’s syntax. The plangent wind choir and horns provide rapt responses and the string tone is rich but not saturated. I don’t mind, indeed welcome, the forwardly-placed harp in the fifth legend. This is a mono recording and that eminent recording engineer Ladislav Šip was on duty in the Dvořák Hall of the Rudolfinum. So the salient features of the performance are set and continue; freshness, rhythmic vitality, a buoyant bottom-up string sound, a sense of the music’s drama or fancy and poetry; try the eighth for a taste of many of these qualities.
Throw in a vital and energising performance of that evergreen Scherzo capriccioso – lyricism and theatre held in excellent balance – and you have an admirable release.