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.