Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/José Serebrier
rec. Lighthouse, Poole Arts Centre, Poole, Dorset, UK, 2011-14
WARNER CLASSICS 2564 613201 [7 CDs: 515:15]
In addition to Dvořák's nine symphonies this Warner set includes the concert overture In Nature’s Realm, Scherzo capriccioso, Czech Suite, a selection of eight Slavonic Dances and the complete cycle of the Legends.
Montevideo-born conductor and composer Serebrier studied at the Curtis Institute of Music and was taught by Antal Doráti and Pierre Monteux. Leopold Stokowski premiered Serebrier’s First Symphony and engaged Serebrier as his Associate Conductor at the American Symphony Orchestra. Stokowski pronounced his youthful protégé “the greatest master of orchestral balance”. An eight time Grammy Award winner Serebrier has been prolific in the recording studio amassing a discography of more than three hundred recordings.
It is rare to see Dvořák’s early symphonies on concert programmes although of his later symphonies the Symphony No. 9 has maintained an unyielding popularity. On record there is plenty of choice in the catalogues for his later symphonies including a number of complete cycles most notably: LSO/István Kertész on Decca; LSO/Witold Rowicki on Decca; Berliner Philharmoniker/Rafael Kubelík on Deutsche Grammophon; Philharmonia Orchestra/Sir Andrew Davis on Sony, Otmar Suitner's on Berlin Classics and Czech Philharmonic/Jiří Bělohlávek on Decca.
There may have been some early examples that have not survived but Dvořák’s symphonic output spans nearly three decades beginning with the First, written in 1865 when he was aged twenty-four to his final example in the genre the Ninth, completed in 1893. In the last decade of his life Dvořák turned away from the symphony. However his compositional appetite was by no means finished producing no less a masterwork than the Cello Concerto, Op. 104, five symphonic poems and three operas including Rusalka.
The only symphony that Dvořák didn’t hear performed or was able to revise was his Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 3 ‘The Bells of Zlonice’ from 1865 as the score was submitted as a competition entry and not returned. It was found and kept privately until it resurfaced in 1923 with a subsequent first performance given in 1936 at Brno. Its title The Bells of Zlonice is not written on the score although it seems Dvořák used that name when referring to it. There are passages in the score that sound rather like bells. From age twelve Dvořák did study in Zlonice where it was said that the church bells would keep him awake. On examining the score Serebrier was convinced of a number of “glaring harmonic errors in the last movement” and in consultation with the publisher, musicologists and the Dvořák manuscript library in Prague made corrections to the score. Although rather overlong for its material at twenty-minutes duration I especially enjoy Serebrier in the opening movement Maestoso - Allegro breezy and expressive with all the quality of a summer walk in a Bohemia country landscape.
Missing for a while, the score to the Symphony No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 4 from 1865 was never returned to Dvořák when he sent it for binding but fortunately it was recovered. Revised in 1887 Dvořák heard the work introduced under Adolf Čech the next year. Best of all from Serebrier is the affectionate second movement Poco Adagio. Serebrier and his Bournemouth orchestra excel in the Scherzo movement which is upbeat and eminently dance-like contrasted with a more serious, questioning character and an undercurrent of peril.
Cast in three movements the Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, Op. 10 was the first of Dvořák’s symphonies he heard performed. Thought to have been composed in 1873 the score was premičred by conductor Bedřich Smetana the following year and given some revision in 1887/89. It was the quality of this Wagner-influenced symphony that persuaded the Czech Government to give Dvořák a life-long pension. Best of all from Serebrier is the second movement Poco Adagio which felt like an outpouring of internalised love.
The Symphony No. 4 in D minor, Op. 13 was written in 1874 and the Scherzo was first performed the same year in Prague under Bedřich Smetana. Unsatisfied, Dvořák revised the score in 1887/88 conducting the premičre himself in 1892. Wagnerian influences are still perceptible in the score but Dvořák can be seen as developing a mastery of his own material. In the opening Allegro Serebrier conveys an agreeable performance with writing that feels confident on the surface over a curious undertow of insecurity.
The Symphony No. 5 in F major, Op. 76 from the summer of 1875 was premičred by Adolf Čech in 1879 and revised in 1887 prior to publication. Bearing a dedication to Dvořák champion Hans von Bülow the work has a fully discernible individual style. Inspired by Bohemia folk music its concision is often remarked upon. Impressive in the flowing lyricism of the second movement Andante con moto Serebrier delivers a smooth and rather beautiful performance.
Dedicated to the celebrated conductor Hans Richter the Symphony No. 6 in D major, Op. 60 from 1880 was one of Dvořák’s first large symphonic works to gain international notice; a fine example of the composer at his full maturity. Richter kept delaying the premičre of the D major score with his Vienna Philharmonic and eventually in Prague the next year the symphony was introduced, to great acclaim, again by Adolf Čech with the Czech Philharmonic. Joyful high spirits imbue the score which has a wonderful Scherzo which incorporates a Furiant - a type of Czech dance. Here I found myself wanting additional passion from Serebrier and his Bournemouth players with the Scherzo. It requires unerring boldness and fire as demonstrated by the quite stunning 1982 Herkulessaal, Munich account of the score by the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks under Rafael Kubelík on Orfeo.
A commission from the Philharmonic Society in London it was under the composer’s own baton in 1885 at St. James’s Hall, London where the Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Op. 70 was premičred in the year of its completion. Now a highly successful composer with an international reputation Dvořák was handsomely paid for both the commission and its subsequent publication. Mainly solemn and temperamental in character the music contains recollections of his Bohemia roots and strong insights into Dvořák’s feelings and emotions. Serebrier is bright and positive in the uplifting opening Allegro maestoso which feels like a changing dramatic scene. Conversely the second movement Poco Adagio needs additional aching passion. A highlight is the gloriously dance-like Scherzo played appealingly by the Bournemouth players with reasonable spirit.
Often compared to a ‘Pastoral’ symphony in the manner of Brahms’s Second Symphony, Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8 in G major, Op. 88 was written quickly in 1889 at the composer’s country home in Vysoká, Příbrami in Bohemia. Compared to the dramatic and rather serious tone of the Seventh the Eighth can be regarded as the most ‘Czech’ in conception, style and character. It is rather like a symphonic poem with melodies influenced by impressions of the Bohemia countryside flowing easily to the pen. Unremittingly cheerful and vivacious the opening Allegro con brio is played here with warm ebullience like a walk through spectacular mountain scenery in the composer's Bohemian homeland. In particular the Adagio feels like a melodious tone poem evocative of country life and nature scenes. Unconventional for a Scherzo the third movement Allegretto grazioso - Molto vivace is more like a gloriously melodious and lilting waltz amid rustic scenes.
Dvořák’s much loved Symphony No. 9, Op. 95 From the New World was commenced in 1893 during an America trip. The stay in America enabled Dvořák to hear and be greatly influenced by Negro spirituals and Native American music. He told the Chicago Tribune that he had attempted to “portray musical characteristics that were clearly American.” On the other hand the work feels infused with the composer’s nostalgic yearnings for his Czech homeland. Abounding in American and Czech folkloric features this is a masterwork that I never tire of hearing. I love the freshly sprung rhythms together with the remarkable passion and power of the opening movement Adagio - Allegro molto with its deep seam of nostalgia. The haunting pathos of the captivating Largo is outstanding featuring the celebrated melody for the reedy cor anglais. I like the way Serebrier intelligently balances the orchestral textures and tempi in the ebullient Scherzo: Molto vivace. Although the performance of the Finale (Furiant): Presto is beautifully played I was left wanting additional power and passion to ensure compelling drama. One of the finest accounts of the Ninth Symphony I have heard is from the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks under Andris Nelsons recorded live in 2010 at Herkulessaal, Munich on BR Klassik.
Throughout this cycle Serebrier adopts a rather underpowered approach rather than drawing down additional weight, extremes of dynamic and passionate intensity. A number of complete cycles of Dvořák symphonies available in the catalogues provide strong competition to this BSO/José Serebrier set. The one that provides me with the greatest drama, probing deep into the fabric of the scores with intensity and conviction is from Rafael Kubelík with the Berliner Philharmoniker. Kubelík - a consummate Dvořák interpreter - recorded the cycle in 1966/73 at the Jesus-Christus-Kirche on Deutsche Grammophon.
Serebrier also offers the ten Legends for orchestra that were originally written in 1881 as duets for piano four-hands. Simrock published the set and recognising the commercial potential Dvořák orchestrated them the same year for small but varied orchestral forces. Lasting here around forty-minutes the cycle contains tempo indications but no titles. Whilst these are not works that I often play the reasonably diverse and occasionally enigmatic character of these undemanding pieces adds to their appeal. Under Serebrier the playing of the BSO in the Legends, so full of sparkling warmth, provides sheer enjoyment. A real bonus is the inclusion of the concert overture In Nature’s Realm, a work the composer thought particularly highly of. In addition the Scherzo capriccioso, Op. 66 (1883) and the five movement Czech Suite, Op. 39 (1879) are enjoyable and colourful works, most engagingly played here.
The engineers have provided Serebrier with consistent sonics that I find reasonably clear and well balanced. Dvořák’s symphonies are given satisfactory performances that communicate this appealing music with empathetic expression. By comparison with the DG Kubelík set it feels as if Serebrier is treating the music as fragile porcelain. Compared to the finest accounts there is an overall deficit of energy, weight and passion.
Previous review (boxset): Gwyn Parry-Jones
Symphonies 2, 3 and 6
Symphony 8 & Legends
CD 1 [68:18]
Symphony no.1 in C minor op.3, ‘The Bells of Zlonice’ [56:17]
Slavonic Dance op.72 no.4 in D flat major [5:13]
Slavonic Dance op.73 no.8 in A flat major [6:47]
CD 2 [65:23]
Slavonic Dance op.46 no.3 in A flat major [5:08]
Slavonic Dance op.72 no.7 in C major [3:38]
Slavonic Dance op.46 no.6 in D major [5:23]
Symphony no.2 in B flat major, op.4 [51:13]
CD 3 [80:00]
Symphony no.3 in E flat major, op.10 [34:10]
Symphony no.6 in D major, op.60 [45:46]
CD 4 [77:22]
Symphony no.5 in F major, op.76 [39:42]
Symphony no.4 in D minor, op.13 [37:38]
CD 5 [72:08]
Slavonic Dance op.46, no.8 in G minor [4:35]
Symphony no.7 in D minor, op.70 [36:45]
Concert Overture ‘In Nature’s Realm’, op.91 [14:59]
Scherzo Capriccioso, op.66 [15:34]
CD 6 [76:42]
No.1 in D minor [3:28]
No.2 in G major [4:18]
No.3 in G minor [4:02]
No.4 in C major [5:31]
No.6 in C# minor [4:49]
No.7 in A major [2:45]
No.8 in F major [3:48]
No.9 in D major [2:51]
No.10 in Bb minor [4:02]
Symphony no.8 in G major, op.88 [36:41]
CD 7 [75:22]
Slavonic Dance op.46 no.1 in C major [4:00]
Symphony no.9 in E minor, op 95, ‘From the New World’ [42:28]
Czech Suite, op.39 [23:07]
Slavonic Dance op.72 no.2 in E minor [5:45]
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/José Serebrier
rec. Lighthouse, Poole Arts Centre, Poole, Dorset, UK, 9-10 Dec 2014 (CD 1), 3-4 June 2013 (CD 2), 15-16 May 2012 (CD 3), 23-24 July 2014 (CD 4), 21-22 Sept 2011 (CD 5), 24-25 Feb 2014 (CD 6), 22-23 June 2011 (CD 7)
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