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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
The Complete Symphonies - Vol. 1
Symphony No.1 in C minor Op.3 The Bells of Zlonice (1865) [47:07]
Rhapsody Op.14 (1874) [17:34]
Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrüken Kaiserslautern/Karel Mark Chichon
rec. Congresshalle Saarbrücken Germany, 2014.
HÄNSSLER CLASSIC CD93.330 [64:53]

This disc proudly proclaims itself volume one in a new cycle of the complete Dvořák symphonies. My first reaction was did we really need another such cycle. On second thoughts, and putting to one side the Bĕlohlávek/Czech Philharmonic cycle released in 2014 as a complete set only, I realised that it is some time since such a cycle had been planned. For those who must have digitally recorded sets Jarvi's robust and exciting Scottish National Orchestra cycle on Chandos goes back to the 1980s which is much the same time as the occasionally characterful but technically flawed early Naxos cycle from Stephen Gunzenhauser and the Slovak Philharmonic. Vaclav Neumann's second cycle with the Czech Phil from the early 1980s on Supraphon lacks any of the dynamism that marks out his excellent earlier analogue cycle recently rereleased to justified acclaim. The famous Dvořák symphony cycles are mainly analogue with Kertész/LSO/Decca, Rowicki/LSO/Philips (as was) and Kubelik/BPO/DG all having their admirers. To that group I would add Suitner and the Berlin Staatskapelle. Finally, a set I have not heard; on Sony/CBS from a young Andrew Davis and the Philharmonia. All of these older sets can be found for remarkably little money complete - often not much more than Hänssler are asking for this new single disc from a little-known conductor and a regional German orchestra.

I appreciate that the opening paragraph does not bode well but I think it is important to place this new disc in some kind of context. Actually, putting all of the above to one side, in its own right, this is very fine indeed and that is how I wish to consider this disc. Would I replace any or all of the older recordings with this one? No, probably not, but as a well-played freshly affectionate performance well-recorded it certainly deserves to be heard. There are a couple of salient features about Dvořák's first symphony that are worth repeating. Given the Opus number 3 it represents an extraordinarily confident leap into the dark mysteries of full orchestral composition for someone whose previous Opus involved two string chamber works. Then there is the well-known story that the only score of the work was sent to Germany to be entered into a composition and promptly lost. It was discovered by an unrelated namesake - Rudolf Dvořák - in a secondhand booksellers in Leipzig in 1882 but the composer was never made aware of its reappearance. Therefore, as we know it today it remains the only major early Dvořák work that was never revised at all. The critics will tell you this results in an uneven, overlong and often clumsy work. The supporters of the work - myself included - would say that for all its occasional infelicities it bursts with memorable ideas, wonderful energy in the orchestral writing and the confidence of youthful genius.

London-born conductor Karel Mark Chichon is extremely good at picking ideally flowing and fluent tempi which reinforce the genial, open-hearted youthful nature of the work. As I said, I do not propose to make this review an extended compare and contrast but Chichon scores significantly over several esteemed rivals precisely because he allows the music to flow. This is clear from the very opening bars where once past the nominal 'bells' played by the unison horns the main allegro proper of the movement has a very positive expressive drive. The playing of the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie is similarly poised and refined. Not that they lack punch or bite if required - as Dvořák develops his primary material Chichon is very good at observing the detail of the score while also allowing the players to unleash real drama. He allows an unwritten but wholly understandable relaxing of the tempo around the arrival of the - somewhat delayed - second subject, which is another of the miraculous lyrical melodies Dvořák seemed able to produce effortlessly.

Even in his later acknowledged masterpieces I am not sure Dvořák ever gets enough credit for just what a fine orchestrator he was. His bass lines are often much more active than many comparable contemporary scores and he was happy to give extended melodic leads to brass and winds in a unique way. One other aspect of the opening movement; it has a huge exposition repeat which involves going back over 275 bars. Chichon is not alone in ignoring this repeat - including it makes this Dvořák's single longest symphonic movement bar none. I understand the decision to jump to the second time bar but I must admit to a preference for taking the repeat. The modern preference is - rightly - never to cut works arbitrarily. To my mind that includes indicated repeats and further more to get a sense of what the young composer had in mind - even misguidedly - we should be able to hear the repeat. Jarvi, Rowicki and Kertesz all take the repeat, Neumann (in both cycles), Suitner, Kosler and Gunzenhauser do not. From timings alone - since I have not heard it - the new Bĕlohlávek would seem not to either. Undoubtedly, Dvořák would have tightened the structure of all the movements given the chance. As written passages are over-extended and sometimes get lost in excessive development but the fact remains that undisciplined early Dvořák is far better than a dozen more carefully mannered minor composers whose causes are regularly espoused in the new releases lists.

The slow movement is an Adagio Molto which after an introductory series of chords leads to a very beautiful extended oboe melody - absolutely delightfully played here and again at an ideally chosen steady tempo but one which allows the music to slowly unfurl. Again real care has been taken to allow the subtly balanced dynamic layers to register - as an orchestral violist at the time of its composition perhaps no surprise that Dvořák was happy to give his section a much more interesting part than they might often expect. Another feature of this work is how early in his career Dvořák was exploring the notion of a 'national' symphony. No surprise that this is most evident is the busily bustling third movement Allegretto. This is not yet the folk-inspired dance it would become in his later works but it has a joyful energy. Chichon finds a perkily insouciant feel for the march/trio that again seems wholly appropriate. This is delightfully alert playing beautifully caught by the Hänssler engineers.

Up to the finale - despite occasional longueurs - for such a youthful work I find this remarkably impressive. Surely, this finale is the part of the work that would have been most radically trimmed by the reviser's blue pencil. There are points where almost comically it keeps trying to end but decides to go around for one more extended peroration. Again Chichon's instinct for apt tempi cannot be faulted but for the only time in the work Dvořák's melodic gift lets him down and he falls back on some rather empty musical rhetoric. For the delights of the first three movements and the works yet to come I can happily forgive this one frankly dull and over-extended movement.

At first glance the coupling of the early Op.14 Rhapsody seems neither that interesting nor that generous. Such an opinion is a mistake. Although the liner makes no mention of this, it is related to the earlier work. Assuming the symphony lost, Dvořák reworked part of the third movement into this Rhapsody. Also, interesting to note that although it is often linked forward to the Three Slavonic Rhapsodies Op.45 it has an alternate title of Symphonic poem. Indeed, quite rightly, the liner links the spirit of the work to Smetana's Ma Vlast which was begun at the same time. Even though no programme is given there is much more of a sense of drama here - all bardic harps and heroic brass - than being a simple rhapsodic medley of nationalist melodies. I have only one other performance to compare - in fact I cannot easily track down other versions at all - that on Marco Polo/Naxos with Libor Pešek conducting the Slovak Philharmonic. That performance has the benefit of an unmistakably orchestral sound but this new version is far better in every regard. Better played, more tautly conceived and compellingly exciting. To the point that one wonders why it languished unplayed - and relatively unknown to this day - until 1904 at a memorial concert for the composer who died the same year.

The engineering of this Hänssler disc is unfussily fine. There is no indication that - following the current trend - these performances are taken from concerts. I would suspect not - certainly there are no extraneous sounds at all and no applause. In fact this would seem to be a good old-fashioned high quality studio recording. Balances across the orchestra are realistic and effective and the dynamic range is again natural but also expands excitingly to the big climaxes. The Congresshalle Saarbrücken sounds like a pleasingly neutral space - warm enough to support the instruments without imparting too much clouding resonance. The liner is printed in German and English only. I do find it surprising in these days of globalisation that any liner can be clumsily translated; "Dvořák's first symphony with the surname "Die Glocke von Zlonice" is despite its humongous orchestral apparatus full of magic and tunefulness. Its spacious areas and climax may remind from far distance of Anton Bruckner.... The firstling from 1865 wasn't though enough for Dvořák's standards - he made it disappear in a drawer.... conductor Karel Mark Chichon is considered as one of the most exciting musicians of our time. He amazes an international audience with his temper" - says the Hänssler website. Perhaps give it to the conductor at least to proof read.

I must admit that I do enjoy hearing these works played by Czech or Slovak orchestras. They seem to be some of the few world class orchestras who have managed to retain a genuine regional sound. That having been said I have been greatly impressed by this disc in every respect. Much of the credit for this has to go to Karel Mark Chichon who allows the music to speak so freshly and spontaneously. As the cycle develops it will be interesting to hear if he moulds his approach to the demands of the later symphonies too. Apparently the next release in the set will be of Symphony No.5 which on the strength of this disc would seem to suit Chichon and his players perfectly - so I will wait to hear that with great interest.

Big-boned, open-hearted music played with sensitivity, brilliance and panache.

Nick Barnard