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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Legends, op.59 [39:47]
Symphony no.8 in G major, op.88 [36:51]
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/José Serebrier
rec. The Lighthouse, Poole, 24-25 February 2014
WARNER CLASSICS 2564 628787 [76:38]

Whatever qualities it may have, this CD certainly represents excellent value. The Legends account for the first forty minutes, then there’s the wonderful Eighth Symphony – not far off eighty minutes in total. Compare that with David Zinman’s admittedly very fine version on Apex, which has the Legends alone, thus running for about forty minutes in total. This all seems a bit odd, since Apex happens to be Warner’s ‘bargain’ label, though both CDs retail around the £11 mark; go figure, as they say.
 
Putting aside such monetary considerations, this is a very fine recording. It is the latest in José Serebrier’s complete survey of the Dvořák symphonies, with ‘fillers’ provided by some of the smaller-scale orchestral works. I have long regarded the Uruguayan as one of the most perceptive and musical conductors of our time; he doesn’t feel the need to stamp his own personality on the works he conducts, preferring on the whole to rely on the composer’s own judgement. Allied to this, he has an exceptional ear for orchestral balance; the BSO play superbly for him, the music projected powerfully with bags of colour and personality, while always allowing essential details to be heard.
 
The ten Legends, op.59 started life as piano duet works. They share this with the Slavonic Dances, and are very closely related to them. They are of similar proportions – none is more than five minutes long – and the slowest tempo indication is Andante moderato. The piano duet version was published in 1881, and shortly afterwards, the composer orchestrated them with exquisite skill. Despite the descriptor ‘Legends’, there are no titles for the individual pieces, just tempo indications. They do have a dance-like character – though in fairness you can say that about most of this irresistible composer’s music.
 
Part of the Legends’ appeal is catching hints of Dvořák’s symphonic works in their language; the slow movement of the Sixth Symphony lurks in the background of number 3, while the spiky ‘Furiant’ rhythms of the great D minor symphony’s scherzo scamper through the charming no.8. Typically of Dvořák, there are strong, sometimes startling contrasts, and the instrumentation gives every section of the orchestra a chance to shine.
 
I confess to having a very special love for the G major Symphony; it was the first classical LP I bought for myself – an Ace of Clubs record, featuring a superb performance by the Concertgebouw Orchestra under George Szell; I wonder if it’s been transferred; must have a look. So I’m very protective, and feel almost personally offended if a performance doesn’t hit the spot. This one emphatically does just that - Serebrier proves an ideal companion for the journey through this ever-changing symphonic landscape. The Eighth is essentially a good-natured, relaxed work, and the secret lies in letting that character shine through without losing momentum. Serebrier achieves that in a sharply characterised opening movement with plenty of drama. The climaxes, particularly the one at the close of the development section, are thrilling, and the end of the movement has a real sense of exhilaration.
 
I have a few reservations about the slow movement; for a start, why has Serebrier allowed it to follow on with barely a pause for breath after the first movement? Dvořák does not request this — attacca would be the indication to link the two movements together — and it distracts attention from the main theme as it begins. A couple of other oddities in the interpretation: there is a very fully scored passage about four minutes in, at the end of which the scoring suddenly cuts down to hushed strings, marked pianissimo by the composer. Serebrier ignores this, asking his strings to play quite loudly with masses of vibrato. Later on, in the next major outburst, at 6:42, Serebrier holds the music back in a rather laboured way, then suddenly changes gear to a much quicker tempo – again, there is no mark indicating this in the score. It can’t be a matter of separate takes clumsily edited together, for no self-respecting conductor or producer would allow it to go through – so it must be intentional. Strange, and disappointing, since other parts of the movement, including the serene ending, are beautifully done, and the playing, as everywhere on the disc, is of the highest order.
 
The recording is outstanding, clear as crystal right though the spectrum and perfectly balanced. Lots of delightful details come through with ease, like for example the little drum-taps in the trio of the third movement, so easily missed.
 
The finale takes the form of a set of variations, with a central contrasted episode. I felt the variation theme itself a little slow at first, but in the end I was persuaded – and Serebrier is actually very close to the composer’s metronome mark. The C minor episode in the middle of the movement is huge fun – it’s given that slightly disreputable quality that it needs, and throws into contrast the beauty of the tranquil variations that follow – featuring, just to balance my earlier complaint, deeply sensitive pp from the strings, as well as an expressive clarinet solo.
 
This is a distinguished recording, colourful and vividly characterised, and, despite the odd - very forgivable - quirk mentioned above, it is very well worth getting.
 
Gwyn Parry-Jones

Previous review: Michael Cookson

Masterwork Index: Symphony 8
 
Legends Op. 59
I. Allegretto [3:28]
II. Molto moderato [4:18]
III. Allegro giusto, scherzando [4:02]
IV. Molto maestoso [5:31]
V. Allegro giusto [4:13]
VI. Allegro con moto [4:49]
VII. Allegretto grazioso [2:45]
VIII. Un poco allegretto e grazioso [3:48]
IX. Andante con moto [2:51]
X. Andante [4:02]