Bedrich SMETANA (1824-1884)
The Bartered Bride: Overture (1866) [6:53]
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95 From the New World (1893) [42:06]
Leos JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
Sinfonietta (1926) [23:35]
Taras Bulba (1915-18) [23:35]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 1 in C, Op. 21 (1799-1800) [24:34]
NHK Symphony Orchestra, Tokyo/Václav Neumann
rec. in concert, December 1978, NHK Hall
KING INTERNATIONAL KKC2051 [48:59 + 71:44]
These 1978 concert performances probably won't displace anyone's current favourites, nor would I recommend them to the newcomer. Their interest is primarily discographic: it's good to hear Václav Neumann in such fine form after his string of dispirited, rhythmically square recordings on Supraphon and Canyon Classics.
The NHK Symphony is highly respected, but I suspect the Czech concert staples didn't regularly figure in its repertoire. The process of teaching the ensemble a less familiar "language" galvanizes Neumann into energetic, involved performances. The players cope variably: woodwinds and strings adapt readily, the woodwinds with slightly wheezy tuning; the brass seem less comfortable, with a few iffy exposed attacks. Some tinny trumpet tone suggests that the quality of the instruments themselves, rather than the playing, might have been the problem.
In the Bartered Bride Overture, after an imposing opening gesture, Neumann doesn't stint on the tempo — the Czechs like this fast — and the strings are game: the long introductory runs are impressive to begin with, though they become nervous as the textures fill out, and the motivic interjections are taut and crisp. The main theme goes with a nice buoyancy, and the woodwinds are delicate in the second. The abrupt brass interjection at 3:04 causes a momentary scramble but the brief "development" at 5:08 is, by turns, playful and wistful.
The orchestra isn't quite at home in the New World, as it were. Attempts at incisive string attacks, noticeably at the start of the third and fourth movements, sound blunted; there are moments of disarray in tutti. The famous English horn solo in the Largo is musically shaped but deadpan, uninflected; otherwise, the reeds are sensitive but apt to run ahead. The trumpets and horns struggle with the vaulting figures in the first-movement development and the opening brass attack of the Largo is arthritic. On the other hand, the proclamatory horns are focused and powerful in the Finale's first theme. Neumann's attempts at flexibility don't always work: his slowing for the first movement's second theme, unobjectionable in itself, requires an awkward ritard at its recap. More effective are the restless central section of the Largo; the relaxed, lilting Trio and the sense of an arching through-line that holds the episodic Finale together.
Surprisingly, the players cope more readily with Janáček's knottier writing, not merely sorting out the irregular phrases and rhythmic groupings, but making musical sense of them. In the Sinfonietta, note, in the Allegretto, the unfolding of the broad melodic lines over the obsessive ostinatos; and, in the fourth movement, the clear scansion of the two- and three-bar phrases. The central Moderato conveys the right sense of uneasy anticipation; and the triumphant fifth movement, with its extra brass, rounds things off well. The under-refined trumpet tone sounds more in keeping with this music's more "primitive" aesthetic, but there remain unconvincing moments. At the climax of the Andante, the textures feel oddly barren, not cohesive. Neumann paces the fourth movement's tumbling woodwind motif moderately; even so its third occurrence is uncertain, and the coda is a scramble.
The surging first movement of Taras Bulba is both polished and idiomatic. The other two movements are trickier going. The second, rhythmically intricate and wanting incisiveness, sounds a bit careful. The third movement's numerous changes of texture come off well enough, and, as in the New World, Neumann projects the string of diverse musical episodes in an arching line. The affirmative passages, including the triumphal coda, convey a nice fervour.
The orchestra is clearly on more familiar ground with Beethoven — it even recorded a complete cycle, issued Stateside on Vox, long ago — and this performance of the First Symphony is relaxed and sprightly. I especially enjoyed the simple, unaffected presentation of the Andante. Running figures, once again, tend to be slurry and rhythms could be more firmly grounded.
It's a memento of the conductor, or perhaps the orchestra, rather than a basic library choice; in the two Janáček scores, by the way, it's worth remembering Mackerras's full-bodied, splendidly recorded Vienna Philharmonic accounts (Decca). Those who recall King International's "super-LP" releases of the 1990s won't be surprised that the booklet, save for the front cover and a note on the orchestra's history, is in Japanese only.
Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.