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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Rhapsody in a minor, Op.14, B44 (1874) [20:28]
Slavonic Rhapsodies, Op.45, B86 (1878): No.1 in D [14:20]; No.2 in g minor [13:16]; No.3 in A flat [15:01]
Pilsen Philharmonic/Tomáš Brauner
rec. Studio of Czech Radio, Pilsen, 2013. DDD
ARCO DIVA UP0171-2 031 [63:20]

It's hardly surprising that the catalogue for these works is dominated by Eastern European conductors, many of them at the helm of orchestras from that part of the world. You don’t have to be Czech or Slovak to appreciate the music but it seems to help to have it conducted by one or by one of their neighbours such as Iván Fischer.

Though they are less well-known than the symphonies, tone poems and Slavonic Dances, there is a surprising degree of choice for recordings of these works. That said, only one rival disc couples Op.14 and Op.45 and that's from Libor Pešek (Op.14), Zdenek Košler (Op.45) and the Slovak Philharmonic on Naxos (8.550610). They can also be had coupled with a fine performance of the Slavonic Dances conducted by Zdenek Košler on 8.520011 (2 CDs). The music may be less tightly organized than the symphonies and tone poems – even, in the case of Op.14, somewhat diffuse – but the rhapsodic form suited Dvor(ák well and it’s all attractive.

The early Rhapsody in a minor takes a little while to get underway but I think that’s down to the composer rather than the performers. Dvořák’s early works can be somewhat slow burners, as witness his first attempt at a symphony, The Bells of Zlonice, Op.3/B9. That work has some really attractive moments and I couldn’t resist listening to the under-rated Rowicki recording (Decca box set), having mentioned it. Even so, as a work, it would have benefited from a revision by the mature composer. Instead he dropped it and three other early symphonies from his official numbering.

Pešek opens at a faster tempo than Brauner and continues throughout to take a livelier view of the music. Overall he takes 17:36 against Brauner’s 20:28, and he makes the music more immediately attractive for me. The 1986 recording — originally released on Marco Polo 8.220420, with three overtures — sounds well but either it makes the Slovak PO sound as if it was a smaller ensemble than the Pilsen orchestra ... or it actually was on this occasion. That’s not necessarily a bad thing because it brings out the textures more clearly than the Arco Diva recording.

One of the secrets of the early successes of Marco Polo and Naxos was their choice of orchestras whose time didn’t cost as much as the great and the good. In this way they could afford much more rehearsal time and multiple retakes if necessary to get the playing just right. That’s true of their recording of the Slavonic Dances with Košler and also of this recording of the Op.14 Rhapsody, but it’s certainly not meant to decry the playing of the Pilsen orchestra, which is also very good.

If Pešek is marginally preferable in general, both conductors bring off the stirring patriotic ending of the work very well indeed. Here, too, the rather fuller sound on the new Arco Diva recording really pays dividends. The Rhapsody is a work of many moods – I even had a weird dream in which I ‘proved’ that it was written by several composers. Brauner brings out the dark and stormy more than the light and sunny.

Brauner is a little more expansive than Košler on that same Naxos CD in the three Op.45 Slavonic Rhapsodies, too. I like Košler’s way with these works, capturing the loose structure of the music very well without losing his way. That said, the Naxos recording sounds a little too thin at times by comparison with that of Op.14 on the same album and on Košler’s Naxos CD of the Slavonic Dances. The latter was one of the first Naxos discs which I bought and I listen to it as often as to the classic Szell recording on Sony.

In particular Brauner’s time of 15:01 for Slavonic Rhapsody No.3 looks very slow as compared with Košler’s 13:45, Doráti’s 13:18 (Decca Duo with Slavonic Dances) or Dennis Burkh’s 13:28 (with the Janácek PO on Centaur) and even more so with Neeme Järvi’s 12:18 (SNO, with Symphony No.2 on Chandos). Actually Järvi starts at a deliberate tempo and, partly as a tribute to the SNO playing, never sounds too fast.

Looks can be deceptive, and in this case the slower tempo helps to bring out the rhapsodic nature of the music right from the start. There’s plenty of lilt, though the effect is achieved to some extent at the expense of exuberance. It would probably take someone of the stature of Beecham to achieve both. Stephen Francis Vasta thought that even Kurt Masur (Australian Philips Eloquence, mid-price) sounded a touch square and not ideally recorded in these rhapsodies – review.

Given the quality of the recording and of the presentation in English and Czech this Arco Diva is a strong contender, though the Naxos coupling of these works remains a very fine bargain. Brauner may not capture the spirit of the music quite as finely as his rivals on that recording but he’s not at all far behind and you may well prefer the fuller sound achieved by his engineers. Plzen (Pilsen), famous as the home of fine lager, is the European Capital of Culture for 2015 and this new Arco Diva recording gets the year off to a very good start.

Brian Wilson



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